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Rail Cancellations and Service Levels

Volume 825: debated on Thursday 1 December 2022


My Lords, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given by my honourable friend to an Urgent Question in another place. The Statement is as follows:

“Madam Deputy Speaker, I thank the honourable Lady for her Urgent Question, which gives us the opportunity to set out the Government’s disappointment with the experience of many passengers, not just across the north, but in other parts of the country. We recognise that current performance is not acceptable and is having an effect on passengers and the northern economy.

I will focus on two operators to set the scene. The first is TransPennine Express services. TPE services have been impacted by a number of factors, including higher than average sickness levels among train crew, the withdrawal of driver rest day working, which is the option for drivers to work on their non-working days as overtime, the withdrawal of conductor rest day working and other overtime working, and strike action on Sundays and some Saturdays since mid-February under a formal RMT union dispute.

TransPennine Express had a formal rest day working agreement with ASLEF that was due to expire in December 2021. The rates of pay under the agreement were 1.75 times the basic pay with a minimum of 10 hours paid, the most generous such agreement in the industry. In December 2021, TPE approached ASLEF seeking agreement to extend the existing agreement. Rest day working forms no part of the terms and conditions, so either side is free to refuse or enter into the agreement when it expires.

On this occasion, local ASLEF officials refused to extend the agreement and sought to negotiate different terms. In the absence of a new agreement, drivers withdrew their rest day working when the existing agreement ended, and further offers have not materialised into an agreement. TPE is undertaking an intense programme of crew training to eliminate a backlog of pandemic-induced route knowledge loss and delayed traction training, and to prepare the business for timetable changes such as the Manchester recovery taskforce December 2022 change.

Turning briefly to Avanti, the primary cause of recent problems with Avanti train services has been a shortage of fully trained drivers. It is a long-standing practice for train companies to use a degree of overtime to run the timetable, to the mutual benefit of staff and the operators. Avanti was heavily reliant on drivers volunteering to work additional days because of delays in training during Covid. When volunteering suddenly all but ceased, Avanti was no longer able to operate its timetable. However, nearly 100 additional drivers will have entered formal service this year between April and December, and Avanti West Coast has begun to restore services, focusing on its key Manchester and Birmingham routes.

I end by saying that we need train services which are reliable and resilient to modern-day life. While the companies have taken positive steps to get more trains moving, they must do more to deliver certainty of service to their passengers. We will fully hold them to account for things that are within their control, and we look for others to be held to account on matters that are outside of the train operators’ control.”

Last night, TransPennine Express announced 38 cancellations for today. This meant that passengers who had planned for the 0551 service to Manchester Airport could have missed their flight; passengers for the 0618 service from York to Newcastle could have missed morning meetings; and passengers for the 0727 service from Cleethorpes to Manchester Piccadilly could have been late for work. This misery across the rail network is now inflicting real damage to the economy. Will the Government demand a binding remedial plan with clear penalties so that operators do not also ruin Christmas for families across the north of England?

My Lords, the Government accept that the services are simply not good enough. In the Statement, I was able to outline some of the challenges that TransPennine Express has had to address over recent weeks and months. Short-notice cancellations are particularly harmful, and the Government are working with TransPennine Express to put in place a plan for recovery to ensure that it is able to get its trainee drivers out on to the tracks as quickly as possible. I note that the DfT works closely with Transport for the North as part of the Rail North Partnership in managing both the Northern and TPE contracts. We are in regular dialogue with TPE, and we are obviously engaging with many senior leaders in the north so that they too can hold people to account.

I thank the noble Baroness for her answer, but it did not refer to the loophole that TransPennine Express exploits. When it cancels trains before 10 o’clock, these are not counted in terms of the delay repay compensation. This also massages its statistics, so that it looks better than it is. The real picture is significantly worse than the official picture. Have the Government investigated whether other train operating companies are exploiting this loophole? If so, which ones are? Can the noble Baroness assure us that the rules will change so that passengers get a more honest picture of train performance? Finally, will she assure us that the Government are committed to improving the terms and conditions of their contracts with the train operating companies? Avanti got a seven-figure performance payment, despite it having the worst results across the UK. How can that be right? How can train operating companies be rewarded for abject failure?

There were plenty of questions to be getting on with there. I am afraid that I am not aware of the loophole that the noble Baroness referred to. I will take that back to the department and write to her with an explanation of how that is included in the performance figures and whether or not we are able to improve the communications with passengers so that they know that trains are not running. We know that certainty is always the best option when it comes to running passenger services. The noble Baroness spoke about the performance fee. I am not entirely sure that it was a performance fee; it may have been a management fee. All fees go through an independent process. If payments are made, they are as a result of the contractual and legal obligations that the Government have with the train operating companies.

My Lords, would the Minister accept that Avanti does not just run its services badly but is responsible for the poor operation of many railway stations? My journey from Birmingham International this morning is a perfect example of how bad things are. I arrived for the 12 o’clock train. The lift had been out of order for three weeks. On the board, the train was shown as being on time; when I got through the barrier, it was shown as cancelled; and when I got to the platform, it was shown as delayed. The staff are unsupervised, unmotivated and disillusioned because of the lack of any management operation so far as Avanti is concerned. I asked to see the manager, but there are no managers around. I got to London the usual 40 minutes late. If Ministers had to travel on this shoddy service, Avanti would have been fired months since.

Obviously, I am deeply disappointed by what the noble Lord experienced. Ministers do travel on these services; I get it in the neck quite frequently from colleagues. I reassure the noble Lord that I have arranged a meeting with the Rail Minister, as promised previously in your Lordships’ House. That is now in the diary and I hope to be able to share the date of that meeting with noble Lords. I hope the noble Lord will come to that meeting, set out his concerns and allow the Rail Minister to set out exactly what the Government are doing, working with Avanti, TPE and many of the train operating companies, to improve services across the country.

I should declare an interest as a regular traveller from Carlisle to London with Avanti, as well as an occasional traveller with TPE to see my son and daughter-in-law in Edinburgh. What evidence is there that their services are improving? When I came down on Monday morning, every other train from Glasgow to London was cancelled—a 50% cut. Whereas the normal journey time from Carlisle to London is three hours and 20 minutes, it has extended the timetable by at least half an hour and then a high proportion of the trains are late. Why have the Government not acted, as a decisive Government would, and withdrawn the franchise from these disastrous operators?

Perhaps the noble Lord will allow me to finish. Officials meet Avanti weekly. A recovery plan has been agreed with Ministers and with the ORR, and we are monitoring whether or not Avanti is meeting that recovery plan—currently it is—and 100 new drivers have entered into service between April and December. I reiterate to the noble Lord, as I believe I have done previously, that removing the franchise from an operator would not make the service any better, because not even the Government can rustle up train drivers out of nowhere.

My Lords, the word “nationwide” occurs in the Question. I have every possible sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord Snape, and others, but there are those who use the east coast main line, and various strikes are threatened. Is my noble friend at all confident that the strikes between now and Christmas, which could prevent my coming here or going back from here, will take place, and what is being done to try to ensure that they do not?

I recognise that industrial action is planned between now and Christmas. The Government are doing whatever they can to act as a facilitator and a convenor. The position remains that negotiations need to happen between the train operating companies and the unions. However, we know that strikes make matters worse for the union members, passengers, the railway and, indeed, the economy. My fear is that as the strikes continue, we risk driving passengers away and entering into a cycle of decline in our railways that we do not want to see. Therefore the Government are very focused on trying to get to a stage where we no longer have the strikes. That depends on having modernising reforms, which are needed such that we can then afford a fair agreement with workers.

My Lords, the Minister suggested that Avanti was sticking to the plan that it had made with the Government. All I can say is that it seems a pretty shoddy plan if the way in which it is sticking to it leads to so many delays.

We are working carefully with Avanti. The next uptick in services will happen on 11 December, when we will see 264 services daily on a weekday, which is up from 180 now. Unfortunately, I fear that noble Lords will not see an improvement that day or indeed on any of the subsequent days, because the services will be beset by strikes and other industrial action. Many things are going on here. The Government will absolutely hold Avanti to account for the things within its control, but we need others to hold people to account for things not in its control.

My Lords, the Minister referred to strikes making things much worse, and of course they are. However, I wonder, listening to some of the reasons for industrial action, whether the Government have presented the overall context of the situation we are in nationally in quite the right terms. The other day, the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, reminded us that we have drifted into what is very near a war situation, with inflation, shortage and the obvious need for everybody to face for a time—for the duration—reduced living standards and increased deprivation. That is clear. Yet here we have all the arguments about the need for catching up in real terms, improving contracts, asserting a new deal and so on and so forth. This does not seem the right language for the crisis we are in. Is there not a case for explaining more clearly to the many groups who feel they are oppressed in their living standards that this is something we all have to face for a while until we can get out of two or three of the biggest crises that have faced us since 1944?

I am grateful to my noble friend for his contribution. I note that at the recent fiscal event, the Chancellor highlighted the difficult economic circumstances that the country is currently in. However, I reiterate that there is a fair balance to be achieved here, although that balance is affordable only if we are able to achieve the sort of modernisation that our railway system needs, where a seven-day operation is not dependent on the approval of the workforce, just as major supermarkets nowadays would not close on a Sunday. Therefore we need to be able to take those steps towards modernisation, and we believe that then there will be a landing zone when it comes to fair wage increases for workers.