– in the House of Commons at 1:49 pm on 19th June 2018.
I beg to move,
That this House
has no confidence in the Secretary of State for Transport, the Rt Hon Member for Epsom and Ewell;
notes the failed implementation of the May rail timetables which has left thousands of commuters without services and has drastically affected their everyday lives;
believes Northern and Govia Thameslink Railway should have their franchises terminated;
and regrets that the Secretary of State for Transport has failed to strategically manage and oversee the UK railway and take responsibility for his role in the crisis on England’s railways, whilst officials at other organisations have resigned and forgone bonuses.
Before I come to the topic of today’s debate, I would like to express my condolences to the families and friends of those who so sadly died as a result of being struck by a train at Loughborough Junction in south London yesterday. I also pay tribute to all the railway staff who attended in response, in particular the British Transport police. Despite the challenges we face, we can never forget the outstanding public service that tens of thousands of men and women provide every day. We owe it to them to do our very best for the industry.
I regret having to table the motion, but given the totally unacceptable state of the railway I felt that I had a duty to passengers. The latest chaos follows meltdown on the east coast, resulting in a £2 billion bail-out and huge cuts to promised electrification in Wales, the north of England and the midlands. This is not shaping up to be a distinguished legacy. In his resignation letter to staff, Charles Horton, the outgoing chief executive of Govia Thameslink Railway, said:
“In my view, this was an industry-wide failure of the timetabling process. But with leadership comes responsibility and so I feel it is only right that I step down”.
Why is it that the chief executive of a train company who is responsible only for the travel disruption on one part of the railway is able to recognise the responsibility that comes with his leadership role and resign, yet the person who is truly responsible, the Transport Secretary, remains in post?
Does my hon. Friend agree that, ever since the collapse of the west coast main line franchising competition under a predecessor of the Secretary of State, the entire franchising system has become increasingly ridiculous and unworkable, and that the way in which we run our railways needs to be changed entirely?
I could not agree more. We are seeing instance after instance. It is evidence, if any more were needed, that the system has completely and utterly failed and needs to be completely revised. Why are train companies allowed to retain their franchise despite repeated failures? Northern and GTR should be stripped of their contracts. Labour said very clearly that franchise failure should mean forfeit. It is clear that the Department for Transport has failed to ensure that train companies fulfil the terms of their contracts.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is not only GTR that should lose its franchise? The Secretary of State should have his office removed as well because this is a façade of a franchise. We know that Ministers are behind it, and it is Ministers who should be held accountable for the fact that passengers in places such as Preston Park in Brighton are losing their jobs, cannot spend time with their kids in hospital and are having their lives wrecked.
I agree entirely. The Government seem to want to have control and intervene, but they do not want to take responsibility. GTR should have been stripped of its contract years ago for running the worst rail service in modern times. The company has repeatedly been found in breach of its contract as well as overseeing toxic industrial relations and poor customer service. Had the Government heeded Labour’s call to strip the company of its franchise, the recent disruption could have been avoided.
I thank the hon. Gentleman—he is always kind and courteous with his time. A month ago, I believe that he said at the Dispatch Box that the rail professionals should be allowed to get on and run the industry, but in this instance he is being critical of the Secretary of State for not intervening and stopping that very eventuality occurring. I would like some clarification.
I will come on to that. As an excellent member of the Select Committee on Transport, the hon. Gentleman knows that the DFT sits on those bodies—it has a presence—yet it did nothing when it was given those alarms or warnings that he knows all about.
I shall give way briefly, as I want to make progress.
It is not many months since we had a problem with Southern, as has been mentioned by Caroline Lucas. From time to time there are problems on the west coast main line, yet the Secretary of State sits there like Pontius Pilate and abdicates responsibility.
My hon. Friend make the point wisely and accurately.
My hon. Friend is making a good speech. Yesterday, members of the Transport Committee sat for many hours interrogating leaders of the industry, both train operating companies and Network Rail, trying to find out who runs the railways. After all those hours, answer came there none. Does my hon. Friend agree that there are two scenarios? First, the Secretary of State is in charge, in which case he should take responsibility; or even worse, he is not, in which case he should be sacked?
My hon. Friend makes the point very well. We are talking about a dysfunctional railway that is completely and utterly fractured, and that has to be resolved.
I will make progress, as I have taken several interventions and I know that many speakers wish to contribute. It is not acceptable to allow companies to continue to run and profit from rail services following failures on this scale. Services should return to public ownership to be run as part of an integrated railway under public ownership.
I turn to the distressing situation that confronts us more broadly on the railway as a result of the calamitous introduction of new timetables across more than half the UK rail network. The changes were intended to be improvements to introduce much-needed rail capacity following public expenditure on new rail infrastructure, but instead of improvements passengers on Northern and GTR have experienced a nightmare of disruption, and there seems to be little prospect of their trials and tribulations ending quickly. Last week, the Manchester Evening News carried a number of personal testimonies about the impact of the chaos. Leigh Burke, 55, is a team leader at Royal Bolton Hospital. He commutes from Didsbury to Bolton and said:
“I’m late to work all the time, it’s affecting my job. It’s an utter shambles.”
Louise Kirby, who commutes daily from Bromley Cross to Victoria, added:
“It’s horrific. I keep having panic attacks because it’s been so crowded. I saw a man pass out.”
Tom Moss, 24, a PR manager who lives in Glossop and works in Altrincham, pays £104 a month for his pass and said:
“I just want the trains to be on time. I just feel angry. I can’t take much more of it.”
There are thousands more personal stories that I could describe: personal difficulties and struggles that have a significant social and economic impact. Businesses and individuals who rely on rail transport suffer consequences from this disruption that carry very real costs.
This is not just a one-off. Disruption of this scale and severity, particularly when passengers experience it endlessly over an extended period, destroys faith and trust in the railway and drives people away from rail into their cars. Last week, figures showed that rail passenger usage has fallen yet again—this time, the fall was the biggest in 25 years. Not only does that mean more congestion, worse air pollution and an increased contribution to climate change, but it threatens the very sustainability of the railway.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, as well as appalling oversight by the Government, one of the main challenges facing the rail network is ageing and unreliable infrastructure? That is a particular problem for the east coast main line, which has not had any real investment since electrification in 1991, 27 years ago, despite its being one of the major national rail routes.
Indeed. The east coast main line is in need of investment, and my hon. Friend makes her point incredibly well.
I will give way once more, then I must make progress.
That is very decent of the hon. Gentleman, and I am grateful to him. He is making an important speech. Does he agree that there is something of the red herring about conversations suggesting the new timetable is the source of the current calamity? Does he also agree that strategic decisions by the Government have led to the problem, which predates timetabling, not least the decision to postpone or, in the case of the Lakes line, cancel electrification, and to award to Northern certain franchises that it should never have been given, including the Lakes and Furness lines in my constituency?
I agree with those comments, and I will come on to that in a little while.
Franchise agreements assume ever-growing fare revenues, so the downturn in rail use increases the likelihood of more failed franchises and further taxpayer bail-outs. Fares have soared at three times the rate of wages since 2010, pricing passengers off the railway, while disruption encourages more people to revert to driving. That is exactly the wrong modal shift that we need our transport policy to achieve if it is to fulfil our environmental obligations and remove traffic and fumes from our towns and cities. Polling conducted by Which? found that three in five respondents affected by the timetable changes said that those changes had a negative impact on both their work and family life, with four in 10 saying that they had a negative impact on their health.
Considering the scale of the disruption, I am sure the whole House will agree that passengers must be adequately compensated. Yet at present 72% of those affected by the disruption said they had not been informed, either on the train or at the platform, about any compensation they may be entitled to receive. The Transport Secretary should have ensured passengers were made properly aware of the compensation they are owed. In addition, considering the scale of the disruption, a compensation package that goes above and beyond what is currently available must be delivered. The Transport Secretary has indicated some such package is being considered, but he has not provided detail. I ask him to do so today to ensure that the amount of compensation is commensurate with the scale of disruption and, importantly, that it is funded by the train companies, not taxpayers and passengers. They should pay voluntarily. If they refuse, he should make them.
It is important to step back and review the key steps in how we have come to this sorry state of affairs. This year’s timetable changes, introduced on
Today’s industrial action on Northern is a reminder of the utter despair felt by the rail industry’s workforce. Both Northern and GTR have waged war on their staff for three years and four years respectively. They have done so at the explicit behest of the Secretary of State for Transport and his senior officials.
How does the hon. Gentleman explain that the Labour Mayor of London has been unable to run strike-free transport in London, although he promised to do so? Did he also anger staff in this way?
We can have that discussion, but today I am dealing with these services and I am going to concentrate on them.
Senior officials directly interfered. Let us not forget that the managing director of passenger services at the Department for Transport, Peter Wilkinson, said two years ago:
“we’re going to be having punch-ups and we will see industrial action” and that he wanted to run people “out of my industry.”
The introduction of the May 2018 timetable required change on an unprecedented scale. The process of managing change requires co-operation, dialogue, engagement and good will. The Government and the management of Northern and GTR have destroyed their relationships with their employees. Millions of passengers in the UK are paying the price for the belligerence and the antagonistic approach of the Secretary of State.
I know the Secretary of State and I know his Ministers. I bet a pound to a dollar that the Secretary of State and his Ministers pulled in the people responsible for the railway companies and got assurances from them that this would work well. I really feel it is quite unfair, because I am absolutely convinced that the Secretary of State, who I know well, would have checked this out. He has been let down very badly by the railway companies.
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point, but in support of my argument. He is demonstrating that that did not work. That was not a very good way of going about business, relying on people giving assurances rather than saying, “Show me. Where’s your evidence?” You do that before you go ahead with it. You do not rely on people telling you nonsense.
Ever since the timetable chaos arose, we have witnessed carefully crafted statements that try to ensure as little responsibility as possible can be attributed to the Department for Transport and the Secretary of State in charge of it. Let us consider the situation. This is a Government who refuse to recognise the accumulated evidence that their privatised structure of the railway is failing. Therefore, they refuse to accept a sensible and practical railway structure that can function properly.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for being so generous with his time. He is a big supporter of privatisation—[Interruption.] He is a big supporter of nationalisation, but that would cost each and every household in this country £6,500. Does he not agree that the nationalised side of the railway caused this problem in the first place? How does he account for that?
I do not know where the hon. Gentleman gets that figure from. If the Government take franchises back when they run out it costs diddly squat to take them back—zero—so he is talking utter nonsense.
No one other than the Government hold responsibility for their dogmatic stance. This dogma causes them to stand by and defend the rail structure that is manifestly not fit for purpose. It then falls to the Department for Transport to get involved to try to run the railway properly. It cannot do this. Today’s railway cannot run itself effectively because it was decapitated by privatisation and chopped into bits to facilitate private profit taking. Because there is no guiding mind overseeing the railway, the Department has to wade into the railway much more deeply than it should. Having taken this approach, the Government assume a greater deal of responsibility, but they have not shown themselves capable of discharging that responsibility.
The Department for Transport’s oversight has failed in three major ways. First, it appears that, when there was a decision on whether to press ahead with the timetable changes affecting Northern, the Department stood against allowing a deferral. Why did the Department not believe the professional advice it was given? Secondly, the Transport Committee heard from Network Rail yesterday that Thameslink phasing was first raised by the GTR readiness board in June 2017. Mr Halsall, the route managing director for the south-east, said the Department stood by and did not make a decision until November 2017—an astonishing five-month delay. What did the Secretary of State know and when did he know it?
I can confirm that the decision to proceed with a slimmed down timetable was taken by me in July 2017.
Well, I am saying to the Secretary of State quite clearly that a competent Secretary of State would have known this right at the outset and taken the appropriate steps. He did not. He allowed the situation to unwind.
Thirdly, the Thameslink industry readiness board—readiness board, there’s a laugh—formally requested that the GTR timetable changes should be scaled back, yet the Department dithered for two months. GTR boss Mr Horton said the board did not have an executive role, so he could not explain who was responsible for the meltdown—no one accountable and no one responsible.
I do not want to personalise the issue and I do not expect the Secretary of State to know every detail of what happens in his Department—[Interruption.] No, it is just everything he does and everything he stands for; it’s nothing personal. However, the three points I have described are all important failures of the Department for Transport at a high level. Stephen Glaister from the Office for Rail and Road is not an appropriate person to conduct a review into the timetable failings. The ORR itself has failed in its regulation of Network Rail, so it cannot be expected to conduct an independent investigation. This is yet another bad judgment by the Secretary of State for Transport. A new rail timetable is due to be implemented in December 2018. What funds, resources and support will the Secretary of State provide to ensure Network Rail’s planning capability can deliver the changes due in six months?
Today’s Financial Times reports the managing director of Trenitalia complaining about Network Rail and, in particular, the lack of integration between Network Rail and the train operating companies since privatisation. Did the Italians not do their homework on the reality of the UK’s railway? Recent events demonstrate more than ever that our railway is not integrated. I am afraid that the breach of faith and trust is so great that the Secretary of State’s credibility will never recover. There comes a point when the publicly accountable politician in charge of the railway should step up and shoulder the blame. It seems to me, and I suspect to many rail users, that we have more than reached that point.
Before I respond to the points raised by Andy McDonald, can I just say a couple of things? First, I saw the comments that he made yesterday, and I thought he was very brave on the whole issue of medicinal cannabis—I pay tribute to him for that. The other thing is that I echo his words about the tragic events at Loughborough Junction yesterday. Our hearts go out to the families of those concerned and, indeed, to all those who dealt with what was clearly a horrible incident on the ground. We owe a huge amount to the British Transport police in particular and to staff across the railway who deal with horrendous situations like this from time to time. I am very grateful to them for what they did.
For years, the Opposition have demanded that the railways be renationalised and run by the Government, and they have claimed that they would be run much better if they were. Now it appears that they think the railways are already run by the Government, and that if something goes wrong, it is down to us. Frankly, I am going to let their confusion speak for itself and concentrate today on what really matters: getting things back into shape for passengers.
I will give way once or twice during my speech, but as you said, Madam Deputy Speaker, we need to make progress so that people get a chance to contribute. I am going to make some progress before I give way.
As I previously told the House, over the past weeks, passengers on parts of the GTR and Northern franchises have faced totally unsatisfactory levels of service, and I apologise to passengers that have experienced and are experiencing disruption. Since the timetable has been introduced, my Department and the industry have been working round the clock to restore the reliability of the service across the network. Hour by hour, my officials are in contact with GTR, Northern and Network Rail to work to improve the service to passengers.
As I told the House, I have commissioned an independent inquiry. This will be led by the independent rail regulator, Stephen Glaister, to examine why we are in this situation and to avoid it ever happening again. I have met the owners of the franchises and demanded that they improve their operational response, including, in the case of GTR, increasing its managerial capacity. Clearly, nobody wants us to be in the position we find ourselves in today, but let me be absolutely clear: everyone in my Department is as focused as we possibly can be on improving reliability for passengers.
The Secretary of State will be aware that for two weeks in my constituency, there were no services at all along the Lake district—the service into Britain’s second biggest visitor destination. It took a heritage charter train to provide any service over the past few days, and I very much thank all those who were involved in making that happen. Does he agree that this is perhaps a sign that Northern, which is such a colossal franchise across the whole of the north of England, needs to be looked at in a more micro way? For example, we need to look at Cumbria and decide whether the Furness line, the coastal line and the Lakes line could instead be a separate franchise run by a provider that actually wants to run trains on a train line.
At the end of all this, I rule nothing out as regards the future structure of franchises. I obviously want to see the Lakes line recover to a normal service as quickly as possible. It has been a disappointment, actually, that the working practices between the employer and ASLEF have meant that it has not been possible to run a conventional service. That may seem extraordinary, but the employer agreements require that if one driver is taken off for training, all the drivers have to be. That is a strange situation. The Labour party talks about wanting to help passengers; it could put a bit of pressure on their union friends to relax some of those agreements now, so that we get the services back into shape as quickly as possible.
I give way to my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Oliver Heald.
My right hon. Friend will know of the misery—because I have told him—on my line, with five stations where people’s lives have been blighted over recent weeks, but does he agree that privatisation does have one merit, which is that we can get rid of the operator if there is a huge crisis, and if this is not sorted out very soon, will he take the necessary steps to attack the franchise?
I am absolutely clear that that is the case. Indeed, as I will say in a moment, I have started the process of review to make sure that all options are open.
I will take two more interventions; then I will make some progress.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. The network is incredibly complicated, with a whole range of different providers, both publicly and privately owned. Does he understand that passengers look to the Government in their role of overseeing all the different providers? We do not have an independent board, with a chair and non-executives who scrutinise, challenge and support the network; we look to him as Secretary of State and to the Department. He is entirely reactive and not entirely proactive, which is what passengers need. Does he not accept some responsibility for what has happened—for the lack of oversight, the lack of scrutiny and the lack of challenge while this was happening, rather than just reacting afterwards?
I say very simply that the Labour party argues that the railway should be run by the rail experts. When the rail experts advise, as they did in early May, that they are ready for the timetable change—the train companies and Network Rail—it behoves Ministers to take the advice of those rail professionals. Labour is now saying that we should overrule the very people that it said, a few weeks ago, should be running the railways.
I will give way one more time, to my right hon. Friend Sir Michael Fallon.
I am really grateful to my right hon. Friend. On the review, whatever the ownership, these are essential public services—in getting our constituents to work and getting their children to school—so will he consider taking stronger powers for himself in times of disruption that would allow him to direct the rail operators to work more closely together or to put in additional stops to help those who simply cannot get to work in the morning?
Absolutely; I agree with my right hon. Friend. This is something that we will have to look at very seriously indeed. There are many lessons to learn from all this, but most immediately, we need to get services back into place for passengers. I have been watching the issues at Eynsford and Shoreham in his constituency. It feels as though they are getting a better service than they were but there is still some way to go, and we need to make sure that that is covered.
I will make some progress before I give way again.
I would like to update the House on how the industry is working to improve the reliability of services. On
Officials from the Rail North Partnership—it is worth reminding Labour Members that this franchise is managed as a partnership between my Department and the leaders of local authorities in the north. Decisions about it are taken by the partnership board of Transport for the North, and it has been considering how to respond—[Interruption.] The shadow Secretary of State says it does not exist. This is the most devolved franchise in England. Responsibilities for managing and overseeing the franchise are shared through the board of Transport for the North—[Interruption.] Labour Members do not like it, but that is the truth.
GTR is also working to increase the predictability and reliability of journeys on its network. It is working actively to reduce the number of on-the-day cancellations and is now updating its timetables a week ahead. There is clearly still a lot more to do. In too many places, there is very significant disruption, but we have to move things in the right direction. Alternative travel arrangements are in place—for example, for passengers on the Brighton main line, who can have their Thameslink tickets accepted on Gatwick Express. Next month, GTR will introduce a full temporary timetable across its network as the next step to improve reliability and performance for passengers. This will allow GTR to slowly build up services to the new full timetable.
I will take two more interventions, and then I will make progress to the end of my remarks so that I do not take up too much speaking time.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. He will remember that we met on
I will talk about compensation in a moment. I have been watching the performance carefully, and there have been some signs of stabilisation, as I say, but there is still a long way to go. [Interruption.] As I just set out, we have seen some stabilisation. I have been looking at the services day by day, and there is still a way to go, but the decline we saw after the timetable change has at least been arrested, and as the hon. Lady herself admits, there have been some improvements, although not nearly enough. I accept that, and I will take away her comments and look carefully at her line again, but there has been at least a stabilisation.
My right hon. Friend and I share a railway line, the Wessex route, which is under the stewardship of South Western Railway. It will be introducing a new timetable later this year. How will he ensure that the learnings from his independent inquiry are used to inform the implementation of the new timetable to avoid a replication of these sorts of problems in the future?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point—indeed, the shadow Secretary of State said the same. We will not go through with a timetable change in December that is not deliverable. A lot of working is being done right now to see what can and cannot be done. These problems cannot and will not be allowed to happen again. We also have new leadership at Network Rail. Andrew Haines, its new chief executive, stewarded the last major timetable change on the south-western network a decade ago, which went very smoothly. Andrew will be personally responsible for ensuring that any timetable change is deliverable.
I turn now to what happens next. We have seen some stabilisation on the Northern franchise, but I have yet to see any sign that GTR is getting to grips with the issue, so I have commissioned a formal review of the franchise to establish whether it has met and continues to meet its contractual obligations in the planning and delivery of the May timetable, including by ensuring sufficient capability and competence inside the group, and—importantly—to ensure that the owning groups invest sufficiently to minimise further disruption.
My main objective is to ensure there is a plan that I can have confidence in going forward. The review will inform my decisions about how to best use my enforcement powers and the next steps I can take with the owners of the franchise if they are found to be in breach of their obligations. Northern is a matter of ongoing discussion at the Transport for the North board. It has made progress, but not enough, and that is being closely monitored indeed.
The one thing on which I agree with the shadow Secretary of State is the need to put passengers first, and there are two areas where we have to work on that. I encourage all sections of the industry, including the trade unions, to put passengers first. Railway workers across the country are dedicated to providing a high level of service for their passengers and have been on the frontline facing the anger of passengers affected by the timetable disruption, and I am sorry they have had to experience that. I encourage trade union leaders to support their efforts and those of this industry to sort things out for passengers. It is a matter of great disappointment to me that the RMT has again today gone on strike on Northern at a time when the whole industry needs to work together to get the timetable back into shape.
The union makes spurious claims about safety, but trains have operated like this in the UK for more than 30 years. The London underground uses this system, as do trains around the network, and no one at Northern is losing their job or any pay. These changes will modernise the railway in the north and deliver better services for passengers and were signed up to by all the members of the partnership managing that franchise in the north. It is worth adding that on the Southern network, ASLEF, the train drivers union, reached a perfectly sensible agreement that should point the way forward. It is particularly disappointing, therefore, to see the Opposition acting effectively as a mouthpiece for a trade union that regards a Labour party led by Jeremy Corbyn as too right wing to affiliate to. I urge him and his colleagues to urge his union supporters to back down from this dispute, stop calling strikes at a time of disruption on Northern and work together to sort out these problems.
I am clear that passengers on these lines have been severely affected by these issues and need to receive additional compensation. My Department is working closely with the TfN board, Network Rail, train operators and stakeholders to introduce the right compensation scheme as soon as possible. It will be funded by the industry. The Rail Minister has already recommended to the board that passengers who buy weekly, monthly or annual tickets on affected Northern and TPE routes will be eligible to claim up to four weeks’ compensation. As part of the scheme, the industry will provide financial support to TfN to deal with other costs that have arisen from the disruption, including on the Lakes line. There will also be a marketing campaign to encourage people to travel by train in the affected areas. I expect the TfN board to confirm the final details of the compensation scheme come its next meeting on
Political points scoring does not help passengers. We have seen that today. We need to work to deliver the best outcome for passengers and to improve services urgently. That is what I am focused on, what my Department is focused on and what the Government are focused on.
Order. Before I call the spokesperson for the Scottish National party, I need to tell colleagues that this is a well-subscribed debate, and we have another well-subscribed debate this afternoon, so after the SNP spokesperson, I will be imposing a six-minute time limit.
Obviously, I echo the sentiments expressed by the two Front-Bench spokespersons about the accident yesterday and the workers who helped to keep people safe.
Another week, and here we are having another transport debate or statement. I am a little unsure of the Labour party’s tactics in trying to shift the Transport Secretary from his position, because it seems to me that the longer he stays in post, the more incompetent he shows the UK Government to be—and they, unlike the franchises, have real competition. He finished by saying there was a lot of political points scoring and that we should all work together, but it would be best if he took on board some of the criticisms. Any criticisms made—or even valid observations—are dismissed out of hand as political points scoring, when they are not, especially given that the franchise system is on its knees.
We have seen time and again that the Secretary of State is blinkered and ideological. He is a hardcore Brexiteer with the mantra, “Everything will be just fine. We just need to get on with it”, as illustrated by his proclamation that there will be no border checks post-Brexit and that lorries, just like on the US-Canada border, will not need to be stopped and checked. I have pointed out several times that that is wrong, but I have never had an admission of wrongdoing from the Secretary of State, and that is part of the problem.
The Secretary of State’s ideological zeal is at its most visible when it comes to the railways—private sector equals good, nationalisation or public ownership equals bad and inefficient—yet, under the current set-up, state-owned railway companies from all over the world run franchises in the UK. The UK franchise system, based on the premise that public ownership is bad, is subsidising railways across the world. Chiltern Railways, CrossCountry, Northern, and Wales and Borders are run by Arriva, which is owned by Deutsche Bahn. Essex Thameside is run by Trenitalia UK, which is owned by the Italian state railway. Greater Anglia and ScotRail are run by Abellio, which is owned by NedRailways, and Abellio is also involved with the West Midlands franchise, along with the East Japan Railway Company. Southeastern, Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern are run by Govia, which includes Keolis, which is owned by the French state rail operator, SNCF. Keolis is also involved in TransPennine Express and will be part of the re-let Welsh franchise later this year.
Italian, French, German, Dutch, Hong Kong and Japanese state rail companies are running franchises in the UK. When I weigh this up, I start to wonder whether the UK franchising system should be classed as foreign aid—because that is what it seems like. Money is flowing out of the UK to these other countries. It illustrates perfectly the pig-headed attitude of the Secretary of State and Tory Back Benchers.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that many British firms operate railways in other countries? For example, National Express has just won a contract to run some railways in Germany.
That misses the point. The German state railway company can bid for its own work in Germany. The whole point is that the UK Government refuse point blank to allow UK companies to bid for the franchises.
As I have said time and again, when it comes to the merits of privatisation and franchising, the Transport Secretary wrongly connects cause and effect. He has always played up the increase in investment in the railways since privatisation, along with the subsequent increase in passenger numbers, as if all that had happened magically just because of the sell-off and break-up of British Rail.
We know that British Rail had been struggling and had poor rolling stock, and that much of it was outdated, but that was because of the constraints imposed on British Rail by the UK Government, who did not allow any borrowing or investment. Once the Major Government had sold it off, the franchising allowed private borrowing to be levered in—borrowing that could be recovered only through fares or a Government subsidy. The fact that the current Secretary still does not acknowledge that shows a lack of understanding or an ideological blind spot. The fact is that the original sell-off was the private finance initiative on tracks, and that remains the case to this day.
Another myth, which we have already heard today, is that somehow the taxpayer pays no money to the franchises. According to the recent library briefing on rail franchises, all but two received Government subsidies in 2016-17, amounting to £2,330 million in that year alone.
A further indication of the failure of the franchise system to which the Secretary of State still adheres is the fact that by 2020, 12 of 16 franchise allocations will be direct awards. Where are the innovation and competition when three quarters of the franchises are direct awards to the companies themselves?
The Secretary of State’s blinkered attitude also permeates the failed East Coast franchise. He more or less shrugs his shoulders and says “Stuff happens: some franchises fail.” The reality is that private investors and companies either make money or they walk away. It has been argued there has not been a £2 billion bail-out of Virgin Trains East Coast, but the fact is that VTEC has walked away with a £2 billion IOU to the Government in its back pocket. It has not had to pay the money back, so if the Government do not want to call that a bail-out, it must be called a write-off. The Government have not tried to chase up the money, and it has not reached the stage of being a bad debt. The Government have simply let VTEC off straight away. I only wish that the Department for Work and Pensions and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs would do the same when things go wrong for my constituents. Those bodies are relentless, so why should VTEC walk away owing £2 billion?
I agree with what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Does he agree with me that franchisees that walk away from a franchise should be banned from bidding for a significant period?
Yes, I do. The Secretary of State says that there was a parent company guarantee of £165 million for VTEC, which is a lot of money, but if the parent company is picking up other money in franchises, including the direct award of the west coast main line, it is not actually losing that money. It should be penalised properly, and I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it should not be able to bid for other franchises. Its ability to bid for the east coast main line partnership has still not been ruled out.
The Secretary of State also justifies the predicament of the parent company by saying that it “got its sums wrong.” I remind him again that it is his Department that got its sums wrong when it carried out its due diligence and assessment. The Government are lucky that one of the other franchise bidders is not seeking redress from them, because they clearly got it wrong, and got the whole process wrong.
Will the hon. Gentleman bear in mind that private rail operators in Britain are paying money into the Exchequer, whereas in France, 20% of the running costs come from the Government? When it comes to sums, which other areas of public spending would he have cut in order to pay for the things that he is talking about?
I do not think that the hon. Gentleman listened to the point that I made about the subsidy that is paid to the rail franchise companies. It is a circular process, which makes it more complicated and more expensive, because of the number of cost consultants involved, taking money from one direction and paying money in another direction, and then blaming Network Rail. All that money can then circulate, and there are still net subsidies for those companies, although they pay track rental fees.
As I have said before, Richard Branson came out fighting. He blamed Network Rail for the overruns, but we have heard that Network Rail was not really at fault. The Secretary of State should be more robust in attacking VTEC. Letting it walk away owing that money undermines his position.
In previous incarnations, the east coast main line service has proved that public ownership can work. When it was last in public ownership, it paid the track rental fees and made a nominal profit, which went straight to the taxpayer. That model can work, and it should be used again in future. The Secretary of State ought to consider that.
Also on this Transport Secretary’s watch has been the Southern rail shambles. He did not do enough to step in. When I highlighted some of Southern’s failings on another occasion, he intervened and said that he was not the Transport Secretary who had been responsible for the allocation of the franchise. That completely missed the point: he was simply saying, “It’s not my fault, guv.”
I will, briefly, but I am pressed for time.
Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that the situation on Southern and GTR was so long-running that the Secretary of State should step in now, and that there should be not a review but an immediate revocation of the franchise, as happened with Connect Southeastern under Labour?
I agree that the failed franchise should be addressed and immediate action taken. The Secretary of State has been too slow, and the ongoing review will take too long and kick everything into the long grass.
When Abellio took over the ScotRail franchise, there were teething problems, which made national news. Opposition politicians in Scotland were not slow in calling for the head of Humza Yusaf, the Transport Minister. However, he stepped in and agreed a detailed action plan with the Abellio-ScotRail franchise, which really turned things around. It was direct intervention that made the difference.
More than 50% of the delays in Scotland are down to Network Rail, which the Secretary of State stubbornly refuses to devolve to Scotland. Does my hon. Friend agree that if he did that, it could make a big difference to rail travel in Scotland immediately?
It could make a big difference to rail travel in Scotland, and it could also make a Treasury saving. The fact that the Secretary of State continues to refuse to do that defies logic.
We have also seen the railcard fiasco. The railcard has been put on hold because, apparently, no one wants to pay for it. Who would have thought the industry would not want to pay for a gimmick that the Government introduced in the Budget, when they said, “The industry will pay for it”? That is just another failure on the part of this Government.
GTR’s chief executive, Charles Horton, has resigned, Mark Carne and Network Rail’s chief financial officer are forgoing their bonuses, and we have seen plenty of other Government resignations. It is time for the Transport Secretary to consider his position, rather than awaiting the outcome of a review.
Commenting on delays in the Waverley station refurbishment, Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, said:
“This cannot continue for much longer, and it’s not good enough for ministers to just shrug their shoulders and say they’re doing their best.”
Given the delays were the fault of Network Rail, will the Secretary of State do what the Scottish Tory leader thinks is correct, and what we think he should do?
We have been invited by the Opposition to debate a general motion of no confidence in my right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary. I have full confidence in my right hon. Friend. He inherited a difficult task from the last Labour Government and the coalition Government. I think that he fully understands the magnitude of that task and that he is coming up with a number of creative proposals to try to improve the position.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that, for 13 years, Labour did not invest in our roads and railways to give us the capacity that we need. I fully accept that during its five years in government, the coalition was unable to invest on the necessary scale because of the financial disaster that it inherited from the outgoing Labour Government. We have had almost 20 years of totally inadequate investment in road and rail capacity. We now have a growing economy. Many more people have jobs and need to get to work, many more children need to get to school, and many more people want to go to the shops or need to go to hospital, so we are simply running out of road and rail capacity. My right hon. Friend is trying to use every method he can legally lay his hands on to address that chronic lack of capacity.
In my constituency, another 12,000 new homes are being built quite rapidly, and the pressures on our infrastructure are enormous. I witnessed some of the difficulties due to rail delays on Thursday and Friday when I was trying to use services in and out of Reading and there were disruptions. My right hon. Friend has asked the extremely well-paid leaders of the railway industry to get a grip on their services and ensure they deliver on the infrastructure available. But he has gone further than that: he has said to the railways that they will need much more capacity in the years ahead to deal with fast-growing places such as Wokingham, and he has therefore said that digital technology will make a big difference. I fully support his strong initiative. The very lengthy and expensive process of creating entirely new railway lines is not a feasible solution across the country, so the way to get more capacity out of our existing railways is to use digital signalling, meaning that instead of being able to run only 20 trains an hour on perfectly good track, we can run 25 or more trains an hour, giving a big boost to capacity for a relatively modest investment.
My right hon. Friend is also right to recognise that he will need private sector as well as public sector investment. I noted that the Scottish National party spokesperson, who clearly did not know the figures, was unable to respond to an intervention about how, in his party’s fully nationalised world, it would replace the large sums of capital and the considerable sums of revenue that the private sector tips into the railways as the partnership model develops.
The Labour party is with the SNP on this. It always denies that any fault rests with the nationalised section of the railway, yet in the latest set of problems, particularly in Northern rail, big errors were made by the heavily subsidised nationalised part of the industry. I am very glad that my right hon. Friend says there will be new leadership there, because new leadership is desperately needed to supervise the expenditure of the very substantial sums that this Parliament has voted for that industry and to make sure they are well spent.
Another reason why I have confidence in my right hon. Friend is because he recognises that we need road as well as rail capacity, because the overwhelming majority of all our constituents’ journeys are still undertaken by car or van or bus, and they require road capacity. The most welcome thing he has done so far is to say we need not just to expand the strategic national highways network, which of course we do, but a strategic local network so that we can beef up the A roads. That would mean that we could have more through traffic, meaning that vehicles would be taken away from residential areas and town centres, where we do not want conflict between traffic, pedestrians and cyclists. It would also free some of the blocks on the existing highways and provide better journeys.
I hope that as my right hon. Friend goes about selecting that strategic local route network with councils, he will look favourably on the bids from West Berkshire and Wokingham in my area. We have put a lot of thought into them and wish to make progress, but we will need substantial investment to create better access routes to the main cities and centres of employment, because the existing network is already well over capacity in terms of congestion.
I hope my right hon. Friend will also consider the interface between the rail and road networks. One of the big issues in my area is that we cannot get over the railway line. We rely on level crossings, but their gates are down for a lot of the time at busy periods for the railways, meaning that we get massive onward congestion in the road system. We therefore need money for bridges.
I also hope that work on the strategic local road network will involve looking at junctions. A modest way in which we could get much more capacity out of the current road network would be to improve junctions. It is often a good idea to have roundabouts rather than traffic lights, and another good idea is the better phasing of traffic lights. Traffic lights can be fitted with sensors so that if there is no traffic on an approach road, that road does not get a green phase. Roads should get a green phase only when somebody needs that.
There are many things that can be done. I have every confidence that my right hon. Friend wants to do them, so will he please get on with that, and will Parliament allow him to do so?
I wholeheartedly support the motion because somebody has to take responsibility for what is happening to my constituents who use the trains on a daily basis. This Government have history in terms of how they have treated my constituents. They interfered with the Thameslink project when they first got their hands on the Department for Transport, taking the Blackfriars Thameslink trains away from south-east London. They not only took the trains away, but wasted £50 million of public money in order to do so. As a consequence, they shortened the trains going through the centre of London to allow them to go on to the Wimbledon line. I am sure that had nothing to do with the fact that the then trains Minister represented Wimbledon—I make no accusation in that regard whatsoever—but that reduced the capacity of the Thameslink trains going through central London. I will be contacting the National Audit Office to ask whether we are getting value for money out of the Thameslink train service, certainly in south-east London, as a consequence of such decisions on that scheme.
Since 2009, my constituents have been suffering a great deal of disruption as a consequence of the excellent refurbishment of London Bridge. I pay tribute to everyone involved in that refurbishment, but my constituents have had to accept that their services have been cut to certain destinations in central London. There have been no trains to Cannon Street for a number of years, and no trains to Charing Cross as the work switched over on to another set of lines. My constituents were told all the time that, at the end of the process, the network would go back to the original train timetable, meaning that they would have Charing Cross, Cannon Street and Victoria as a choice of destinations.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Does he agree that that is why many commuters, particularly in London and the south, have been so angry? They have had years and years of disruption due to not only repair works, but the disaster of the franchise, and now the railway collapses under their feet. The Government have a responsibility to take action.
Absolutely; someone has to take responsibility. When my constituents were told they had to suffer this disruption, they accepted that, because a major refurbishment was taking place, but they were told that things would improve when the services were restored. They are now told that they will have fewer central London destinations to choose from because, apparently, it is very difficult to cross trains over on the western side of Lewisham station. We are told that because that creates too much congestion, we have to have a service cut. That is despite the fact that we have just spent £9 billion on this project, with £1 billion of that for the refurbishment of London Bridge. My constituents are incredibly angry.
However, as the project is coming to an end and the services are starting to be reintroduced—except those that are going to be cut, of course, under the new franchise, which is a direct decision of the Secretary of State—the infrastructure around the new project is starting to crumble. On
The franchise is run right at the cusp, meaning that whenever something goes wrong, it turns into a major incident involving a major delay. There are not enough drivers, there is not enough maintenance, and the infrastructure is crumbling around the new project at London Bridge. However, the Secretary of State allows Govia, which currently runs the franchise, to rebid. He now says that the person at the top of Govia has resigned—Charles Horton has gone—but that the company is apparently good enough to continue running the service. That is unacceptable and someone must accept responsibility.
Since the start of this crisis everybody has tried to pin the blame on someone else. The Secretary of State blamed Northern for not being prepared, and Northern blamed the Department for Transport. Yesterday, in evidence to the Transport Committee, David Brown admitted that Northern was not aware of the extent of the imminent crisis until two days before the timetable went live. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Secretary of State must finally take responsibility for this crisis, ensure that passengers get the compensation they deserve, and allow somebody who can handle the demands of his job to take over?
I agree with my hon. Friend that the Secretary of State has to take responsibility. That is why I fully support the motion.
The Secretary of State really exposed himself by putting his particularly dogmatic approach to the franchise system ahead of the interests of passengers in a letter that he wrote on
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a pattern of behaviour here? Before the 2015 election, when Chris Grayling was Lord Chancellor, Labour wrote to say that there should be no more privatisation contracts in the probation service. The right hon. Gentleman ignored that, because he did not want to accept that Labour was right about the disaster that the probation service now is.
That is absolutely right. This is the first time that the right hon. Gentleman has got caught when everything has come home to roost while he is still in position. Usually he moves on and someone else has to sort out his problems—for example, by allowing prisoners to have books.
My constituents deserve a better service. Their services are being cut and they will have a reduced choice under the new franchise. They do not want Govia to be allowed to continue running the franchise, yet it has still been allowed to bid. They want longer trains, and I have lobbied many times in here to get extra carriages for the franchise but they have disappeared into the system. We still have eight-car trains turning up at peak times and there is not enough space for people to have a comfortable journey into town.
South-east London has been appallingly served by this Secretary of State. There has been a constant litany of letting us down, and the buck has to stop somewhere. He has never stood up to the franchise operators—the train operators—to ensure that we get value for money and the services we are entitled to in south-east London. For him, everything is fine as long as it is privatised. He has never made any attempt to take on the private enterprise that is profiteering at the expense of the people who rely on the trains. In south-east London we do not have direct access to the London underground, so anyone who wants to commute into London has to use the bus or the rail service. The rail service, as it has been run by this Government, has been appalling and it is getting worse. The buck stops with the Secretary of State, so I fully support the motion.
I am delighted to be able to speak in the debate this afternoon and to place on record my support for the Secretary of State, who I believe is doing a very good job in delivering what this country needs in incredibly challenging circumstances. That is particularly true from the point of view of the far south-west, where we are seeing record levels of investment in our transport infrastructure. After 13 years in which Cornwall basically got nothing whatsoever from the Labour Government, we are seeing hundreds of millions of pounds being invested in our transport system.
On our roads, we have at last seen the dualling of the A30 across Bodmin moor. I am sure that hon. Members will be delighted to experience that when they come to Cornwall on their holidays, but we have been waiting 20 years for it to be delivered. It has now been delivered under this Government, after Labour did nothing to help us. We are now putting our focus on the next bit of the A30, which will involve dualling the stretch between Chiverton and Carland Cross. I know that my hon. Friend Sarah Newton is working closely with the Secretary of State to ensure that we deliver that as soon as possible.
May I suggest an additional area of progress that is needed for disabled wheelchair users? The hon. Gentleman might know that many operators require them to give 24 hours’ notice if they want to travel on a train. That is unacceptable. Does he agree that the Secretary of State should work with the train operators to ensure a more can-do attitude, to assist those people who might need to catch a train at the last minute?
I am not aware of the issue that the hon. Lady raises. It has never been raised with me by constituents—[Interruption.] I am happy to take it on board and look at it, but that is a new one; it has never been raised by any of my constituents.
In my constituency, the Secretary of State has committed to fund a new link road from St Austell to the A30. That is something that the people of St Austell have been waiting nearly 30 years to see delivered. Under Labour, we had no progress whatsoever on that, but it is now happening under this Secretary of State. We are also seeing progress on the A303, which is being dualled through Wiltshire. That is absolutely vital to the tourism industry in the south-west, and we are seeing real progress on it.
On our railways, we are about to see brand-new rolling stock being rolled out on the Great Western Railway into Cornwall to replace the 40-year-old trains that we currently have to put up with. The new state-of-the-art rolling stock will have far more seats for passengers and a much better driver experience. We have also seen the upgrading of our signalling on the railways through Cornwall. That will increase capacity and the frequency of the trains. Again, that is the result of more investment that this Government are delivering for transport into Cornwall.
We are also seeing progress on resilience in south Devon. I am sure that all Members will remember the damage that was caused by the weather at Dawlish and Teignmouth in 2014. That situation arose because of the lack of investment over many years, but this Government are investing and building resilience into the rail network throughout Devon. That is something that we desperately need. On aviation, this Government are supporting regional aviation and they have supported my local airport at Newquay with a link to London. They are also backing our bid for further connections into Heathrow in the near future.
So, from a local point of view in Cornwall, this Secretary of State is doing a very good job. He is delivering for the people of Cornwall like no one has ever done before. We need to understand that the current challenges that have provoked this debate have come about as a result of a combination of many complex issues, and to play political games and use this as an opportunity for political opportunism is not what we need right now. We need to resolve the issues, and changing the Secretary of State at this point is not going to help. We need someone in position who can bring us the answers that we need in order to address those issues, so I am happy to say that I will not be supporting the motion today and that the Secretary of State has my full confidence.
One thing that the Secretary of State has managed to do is to unite those on both sides of the Pennines—which is actually quite remarkable—in our view that it is time for him to go. Lancashire and Yorkshire do not normally get on that well, but we are united in this regard. Ministers will know that in recent weeks the great newspapers of the north have been united on their front pages in calling for the Secretary of State to go. ITV has also joined in recently. The Yorkshire Post and my own newspaper in Hull, the Hull Daily Mail, have made it very clear that we cannot carry on like this and that enough is enough.
We have heard a lot in recent weeks about the timetabling fiasco, particularly in relation to Northern, but as a Member of Parliament for the north, I want to look more broadly at what this Government have said about their commitment to the northern powerhouse and to the connectivity between the eastern and western parts of the north to bring together the great cities of the north. We know that, despite all the words we hear every time a Minister gets up to talk about this, the reality on the ground is very different. We know that the investment going into the north pales in comparison with what is going into London, which gets five times as much. We know that Transport for the North, which Ministers always talk about, is only a consultative body. It does not have statutory powers. It cannot do what Transport for London is able to do to bring in investment.
In recent years, we have also had the fiasco of the electrification of the lines across the Pennines. Hull was actually missed off the first plan that was put forward, and we had to put together our own plan, using private sector funds, in order to be part of the electrification scheme. That proposal went into the Department for Transport and then, several years later under the current Secretary of State, it was refused.
There is confusion about future electrification across the Pennines. We thought the line was going to be electrified, but the Secretary of State seems to have just discovered bimodal trains, which have been around for quite a long time. In addition, when the House was considering commercial space travel recently, I noted that it seems there will be commercial space flights before the line to Hull gets electrified.
Timetabling has been discussed a lot today, and one of the big issues is that for some strange reason Hull was given slower trains across the Pennines when the new timetable was agreed. The whole idea was that the changes would speed things up and connect cities, but Hull finds itself with trains that take 15 to 20 minutes longer to get across to Manchester. When the new rolling stock comes in as part of the TPE franchise, Hull will not get new trains but refurbished trains. However, Scarborough—I am not casting aspersions on the fact that a previous Rail Minister represents Scarborough—now has new and faster trains across the Pennines. How come the great cities of the north are being treated like that? I remind the Rail Minister of the three things that we would have expected the Secretary of State to support in Hull: a half-hourly express service across the Pennines as part of the northern powerhouse; a direct train to Liverpool; and a direct train to Manchester airport. I found out last week that Llandudno has a direct train to Manchester airport—good on Llandudno —so why does Hull not have one?
We have heard the dogma as to why franchising is continuing, but I want to discuss open-access trains. We had to fight hard to get Hull Trains, an open-access operator, to provide a direct service to London, but it is in meltdown, and I have heard nothing from the Department for Transport or the Secretary of State about that. Our rolling stock constantly breaks down, we do not have enough spare capacity, and drivers are trained only on the class 185s, which are unfit for the route down to London. FirstGroup, the parent company, does not seem to be doing anything about the fact that Hull Trains’ reputation, which was good in the city, is taking a nosedive, with people feeling that it is no longer a reliable service, but there has been nothing from the Department on that.
Looking at the franchise that the Department and the Secretary of State are involved with, TransPennine runs the station in Hull and has spent £1.4 million on it, but we are still among the top 10 worst stations in country. It has managed to build some small, smelly toilets to replace the old ones and some new retail units, which have remained empty for weeks. Every morning, I walk through Canary Wharf to get to Westminster, and I see Canary Wharf station, which cost £500 million and has a roof garden. Of course, private money has gone into that project, but we cannot even get a toilet attendant at Hull station. I want to highlight to the Secretary of State and the Minister the stark difference between the north and the south. This is like a “Carry On” film; it is a farce. The Secretary of State must take responsibility. The buck stops with him and he should go.
One thing that is often lost in debates like this is the practical impact of such issues on passengers. I urge the Minister, the Secretary of State and all Members to remember that, yes, this is about getting investment, improving stations and timetables and increasing capacity, but fundamentally the whole point of the system is to make life better for our constituents, particularly those who rely on trains to get to work. Many Members have talked about the difficulties of recent weeks, and the House does not need to hear any more from me about my disappointment in relation to my constituency or those of other right hon. and hon. Members.
My hon. Friend, my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Oliver Heald and I have been working hard with Ministers and with Govia—we are in touch daily—because tens of thousands of our constituents have been massively affected every single day. We are trying to fix things so that our constituents can get to work. Although there are issues with the timetable in our area, things will be dramatically better when it works. The number of seats will be doubled, there will be 50% more trains from my constituency, and a whole variety of new destinations will be provided. When the new timetable is in place, there will be positives, but there are issues now, and they are what we are working daily to resolve.
I thank my hon. Friend. One point worth making—one that backs up his intervention—is that a real frustration as a Member of Parliament is knowing the intended improvements over the medium term, but constituents quite rightly not believing that the improvements will happen when the implementation does not work as hoped. It is therefore incumbent on GTR and Network Rail to do their best to get a grip not just on the medium and long terms, but on the emergency timetable.
I want to draw the attention of the House and the Minister to a private Member’s Bill that I will shortly introduce relating to enhanced compensation for passengers. I recognise that the Secretary of State has set out a compensation scheme specifically for the disturbances over past weeks, but the compensation in the Bill will be governed by the Government’s new rail ombudsman on an ongoing basis, providing automatic compensation for all passengers throughout the country. In addition, it will provide enhanced, more generous compensation for passengers throughout the country. Critically, it will ensure not just that passengers get a percentage of a single ticket for a train that is cancelled or delayed, but that we move towards a system with service levels and a contract between the operator and the passenger. Then, if that service level is not maintained, the passenger will receive compensation. I would like the Minister and the Secretary of State to consider that direction.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for flagging up his Bill and welcome what he describes. Will he confirm whether the compensation for the current timetable problems should be based on the new timetable that was expected to be introduced, not the reduced timetable, and therefore be much larger? Does he agree that there is a strong case for making train companies and Network Rail liable for consequential losses associated with train delays, not just the ticket cost?
On the right hon. Gentleman’s first point, that would depend on when the Bill could make progress and whether it would take effect in time. It is difficult to understand how the proposed compensation regime would interact with the special compensation regime relating to the implementation of the new timetable. However, on the right hon. Gentleman’s broader point about consequential loss, he will appreciate that that is hard to prove. I remember from my days as a corporate lawyer that consequential loss in contracts is one of the toughest things to prove. I am not saying that he is incorrect, but it would merit further consultation and I am happy to sit down and discuss the matter with him. If we can come to an agreement, hopefully the Liberal Democrats will support my private Member’s Bill.
A point that is often made to me is that many commuters do not have a good enough choice. On some lines, the operator is the only game in town, and where that happens, it is incumbent on the operator to do a significantly better job at getting on top of problems when they arise. My right hon. Friend Sir Michael Fallon made the point that the Secretary of State may need additional powers at times of crisis to direct what needs to happen at certain stations, and the House should consider that. I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has said to me, both privately and in this House, that he is committed to improving the situation at Hitchin and Harpenden stations once we have got past the current difficulties—[Interruption.] I can see the Rail Minister nodding in approval, which is always good. My constituents—I was nervous about this before I came to speak this afternoon—are not particularly interested in rhetoric; they are interested in making sure these changes are introduced in the right way to provide real practical improvements to them and their lives. That is what I, as the local Member of Parliament and with the Government, will hopefully be providing.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak in this important debate, Madam Deputy Speaker. I thank my hon. Friend Andy McDonald for moving the motion.
Although the Secretary of State is no longer in his place, I thank him for meeting me last week to talk in detail about the reasons for the timetabling meltdown in Batley and Spen. I am grateful for his reassurance that, over time, things will settle down.
Last Friday morning, I spent time outside Batley railway station to speak to commuters about their experience of commuting and to hear how things are, we hope, getting better. Sadly, that was not the feedback I got. I was startled by how chaotic and unreliable the service between Leeds, Huddersfield and Manchester still is.
I heard from Mandy that her regular journey from Batley to Leeds, during the timetable chaos and beyond, is “the worst commuting experience I have ever had.” She went on to say that “to say there is only standing room is an understatement. Passengers are crammed into a limited number of carriages like sardines.”
I spoke to Dean, who uses trains every day. He said that travelling by train often adds two hours to his day due to delays, with “extra hours away from home on top of a long working day.” He went on to say that “the situation is threatening the livelihoods of many.” Dean wanted me to ask directly whether, if he were to lose his job due to mismanagement of the railways, the Minister and the Government would pay his mortgage and support his family.
I also met Rachael, who was forced to spend her journey standing in the toilet with six other commuters, as there was no space anywhere else. She told me that, as late as this week, her regular service left people on the platform, without opening its doors, as it was too full by the time it arrived in Batley. Seventy people were left waiting over 70 minutes for the next train.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, as our constituents are paying some of the highest prices in Europe for train tickets, the minimum they should expect is for trains to run on time and to be modern and comfortable and for them not to be packed in like sardines? If the train companies are unable to do that, they should have their franchises taken off them and be brought back under public ownership.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention, and I could not agree more. Given the cost of tickets, people should not have to stand on a daily basis. Beyond Batley to Leeds, the timetable is erratic and in chaos, and it still has not settled down.
I spoke to Alison, who told me how concerned she is about health and safety. Crowds of passengers are jostling and pushing to get on already overcrowded and delayed trains.
This is just a snapshot of what is happening twice a day, every day, at most stations across the north. My constituents still see no positive change in their commute, even after reassurances from the Secretary of State. What is the Minister doing to ensure that my constituents can travel to work and back without having to factor in delays and frustrations, which are adding to their stress?
People deserve a decent, reliable rail network, and, in all honesty, they deserve better leadership from the Secretary of State. If he cannot sort it, maybe it is time for him to hand over the responsibility to someone who can.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I am terribly sorry for stepping out of the Chamber earlier than I should have done. It should be me who steps down. I am grateful for being able to say a few words this afternoon, not least because I am a member of the Transport Committee.
I wanted to speak on this subject because I think there has been too much chopping and changing in the entire industry over the years. I recognise what the Opposition motion aims to deliver, but I ask them whether any more changes in leadership would actually deliver the stability that is required. I am not trying to make an argument that might play well; I absolutely mean it.
I have worked with the chief executive of GTR, Charles Horton, over a number of years, and I have tried to work between him and the leader of the RMT, Mick Cash, with whom I have a good working relationship, to try to find a way through the Southern industrial dispute. Charles Horton has now stepped down, which I know many people will celebrate, but, frankly, this is a man with years and years of rail experience who truly cares about putting things right. I am sorry because, frankly, I would rather see people stay in post to turn things around. If there are areas of responsibility, fine, allocate them, but then put that person under the spotlight to deliver the change that makes things better. I absolutely believe the same goes for the Government.
When the Government change position, it sometimes feels as though we have government by six-month fixed-term contracts; there is not enough stability and tenure in post. I support the Secretary of State. He has come to the Transport Committee and has been incredibly open and direct about, for example, where he sees the franchise system is not working and about the need for change.
Now that the Secretary of State has the opportunity to put new franchise agreements in place, it seems right that he should inject some of his ideas for change into those agreements. It is not as though he has constantly said that everything works well. He has admitted there are particular challenges.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one way forward might be to follow the suggestion of my hon. Friend Bim Afolami to increase the availability of compensation to passengers who have been badly treated?
I certainly do, not least because my Automatic Travel Compensation Bill is awaiting Second Reading. The Bill is all about automatic and automated compensation, on which I have met the Rail Minister. It is fair to say that I have not quite persuaded him of the Bill’s merits, but it would place a duty on train companies that currently receive money from Network Rail where there have been delays. Only a third of passengers claim for such delays, so I contend that extra money is left with the train operators. My Bill would require the train operators to invest that money in technology so that my right hon. Friend and I could both tap in and tap out, which would tell us whether we had been delayed by more than 15 or 30 minutes, and if we had been, we would automatically be credited with the compensation we were due. That would be a good step forward, because passengers find it too complex and difficult to claim. Therefore, they do not claim, and as a result, they feel raw about the service. The Government could do more for passengers by making it easier to claim compensation, and perhaps passengers would then give us more support on some of the other changes we are trying to put through. That is a rather lengthy response, but I agree with my right hon. Friend. I hope that my Bill’s Second Reading will yield some success. If my hon. Friend Bim Afolami has a similar proposal, perhaps we could merge the two.
On the rail timetabling issue, my constituency has had an additional service—a fourth service each hour—in an incredibly congested network. I take my hat off to GTR and my rail user group, which came up with an ingenious solution to deliver the extra service without any new rolling stock. The timetable just changed when trains go back and forth between Ashford and Brighton, which has worked incredibly well.
I understand that we, as MPs, are less likely to hear about things that have worked well. Quite rightly, we hear about the challenges where things have not worked. I use the trains every day to come into work, and today I had the opportunity to talk to one of the conductors on my line, a guy called Giles. I was supposed to be reading through the Transport Committee’s draft report on rail infrastructure, but I put it down to have a chat with the conductor. We chatted for the entire journey about some of the issues he has, and his points were well raised. He is aware that, as technology advances, the workforce will need to embrace it, too. His concern on the role of the guard, conductor or on-board supervisor, as these people tend to be called, is that there will be fewer of them. That is valid concern, because most passengers on trains want to see a second member of staff on board.
My point is that, where the system is inflexible, if the second member of staff is unable to join the train for any reason, that train cannot roll. I was a Southern season ticket holder for 10 years and we had one train every hour, so when that train could not go because the conductor was not able to board, there was a two-hour delay, which was no good for anybody. It certainly was no good for tackling congestion or for those who had mobility issues in the station. So I like the flexibility that has now been introduced in Southern whereby in all but exceptional circumstances there must be a second member of staff on board. Where such circumstances do apply—and this cannot be where Southern has not recruited enough conductors—the train can still roll, so passengers can get home. Of course that type of situation has existed on Southeastern for years and it also exists on 30% of the rail network, where the driver operates the doors.
There is another point to make about incidents that have taken place, including one in Liverpool. Where the driver and the conductor are performing different roles, tragedies can occur. A young lady died on the tracks and the coroner’s inquest made the point that if the control mechanism is taken by one person, we are less likely to see that eventuality occur. I often hear safety used as the reason why this is an issue. I was asked by the rail unions to see whether a safety report could be created. We got the rail regulator to deliver that, but it was then ignored, so I feel that all sides need to work a little more together.
It will not be a surprise to the Secretary of State or the Minister to see me standing up to speak in this important debate, as my office has been in daily contact with theirs over the past few weeks. I can tell them that things are no better in Bedford. Until
My hon. Friend’s constituents’ experience absolutely reflects those of my constituents. The two train stations in my constituency are the last two before the main Leeds city station. By the time the two-carriage trains come, they are full and my constituents cannot get on them. When they do, we have seen cases where people have fainted or been unable to breathe. Does he agree that we need to do something now, as the lack of investment and action is dreadful?
I agree with what my hon. Friend says, because I am a commuter and I see the trouble at Bedford station every day. Almost every hour, a train is either delayed or cancelled. This Government need to take control and do something about this urgently.
Two weeks ago, in this Chamber, I asked the Secretary of State to reinstate EMT peak rail services. His response was that that would be the logical solution to the problem, yet two weeks later those trains are still speeding through Bedford half empty and not stopping. On Friday, he finally wrote to me to tell me that he cannot make this happen after all, as, apparently, it will make some trains 13 minutes later further up the track. Tell that to my constituents who have to wait an hour or more for a train and do not see their children before they go to bed. Tell them that a 13-minute delay on a journey to Sheffield is a good enough reason for these services not to be reinstated. EMT says that these services are already overcrowded. In his letter on Friday, the managing director of EMT said that
“there are few, if any seats available”.
Yet EMT’s guide to seat availability says that all but one of the peak-time trains travelling between Wellingborough and St Pancras have seating available. Most are running at 75% capacity or less; we can all see the empty seats, but we just cannot get on those trains.
I have no idea why there is such an absence of will to sort this problem, but this is a mess, and it is clear now that there was never any intention of bringing inter-city fast trains back after two years either, because if they cannot make it happen now, when Thameslink is not operating a full service, they are not going to be able to make it happen when it eventually is. All we have heard are excuses. The truth is the industry needs to work together to resolve this quickly. The Secretary of State should have a grip on this weeks ago—months ago, in fact. I warned him and the Minister many times that this timetable will not work for Bedford, but they completely ignored that and carried on regardless. He and his Department have spent a good proportion of the past few weeks putting together the invitation to tender for the new east midlands franchise. Is this farce not proof enough for him that rail franchising does not work? My constituents need solutions and they need them urgently. They need solutions before things get even worse. If the Secretary of State cannot fix this, he should resign and give the job to someone who can.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate and to support the motion standing in the names of my Front-Bench colleagues. I also wish to thank members of the Transport Committee for their informed contributions to the debate, and I am delighted that Huw Merriman is a supporter of keeping the guards on the trains—well done on that. [Interruption.] Perhaps it is qualified support.
As a member of the Transport Committee and a regular rail user, I have been following the recent regression of the rail service, particularly in my region, with great concern. The catastrophic May timetable changes seem to have been completely avoidable. The Secretary of State ignored warnings and failed to delay or phase in the changes.
Yesterday, my Transport Committee colleagues and I spent three hours asking questions of and taking evidence from representatives from Northern, GTR and Network Rail. I was quite interested to hear the Secretary of State say in response to a comment made by the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend Andy McDonald, that he made the decision to proceed with the changes in July 2017, because my understanding from what the witnesses said yesterday is that concerns were expressed at a meeting involving stakeholders and Network Rail in January, some six months before the ultimate decision was made. There was ample opportunity for the Secretary of State and his advisers in the Department to intervene and identify some mitigating actions, which could have included either delaying the implementation or phasing it in.
My hon. Friend raises a good question. I asked the GTR witnesses yesterday whether revenue was a material factor, and their response was that all the revenue is collected directly. They intimated that there were no revenue implications, although I am rather sceptical that ultimately revenue may well have been a factor in the decision about whether to phase or to delay the implementation of the new timetable. Perhaps the Committee can pursue further whether that was the case.
We have heard from Opposition and Government Members about the impact of the terrible delays. In my area, at the worst times up to 43% of Northern trains have been cancelled or delayed each day. From
Does my hon. Friend accept that although this issue is concentrated in the north, the east and London, it is a national problem? Great Western has been going through its own dramatic problems, with a huge number of cancellations, driver shortages and all the other problems that have been mentioned. It is a national problem.
I am grateful for that thoughtful intervention, and my hon. Friend makes a good point. However, although there are national issues with the training of drivers and ensuring that they have the appropriate skillset, industry stakeholders pointed out to the Department and, presumably, the Secretary of State that it would normally take 40 weeks to prepare, identify training needs and ensure that drivers were in place, but in this case only 16 weeks were allocated and, if my memory of yesterday’s evidence serves me right, it was not until around two days before implementation, when they were drawing up the driver rosters, that they discovered that they had the wrong skill mix and that the drivers were in the wrong places to operate the new timetable. So although my hon. Friend makes a good point, Ministers and the Secretary of State must ultimately bear responsibility for the decisions that were made.
It is quite simple in the industry: although experienced, train drivers need training on new routes and on the use of different rolling stock. Without that training, they cannot go into service.
Absolutely; that is a key point. I am kind of long in the tooth now, but I remember the dreadful train accident at Ladbroke Grove, where 31 people were killed and 500 injured; a dear friend of mine was killed in the Southall train disaster, in which seven were killed and more than 140 were injured; and I remember another accident at Clapham Junction. What with the complexity of the new signalling systems at places like London Bridge, with large numbers of tracks, it is safety-critical that the drivers are fully aware of which signals actually apply to them. It is a mistake for the Secretary of State to imply that ASLEF, representing the train drivers, should somehow make a concession on the training to which its members are subjected. When I get on a train, I want to be absolutely certain that it is completely safe and that the drivers are familiar with the track and the signalling system. I also want to know that there is a guard on the train, so that if anything happens—if anyone is attacked or taken ill—or there is a disabled or blind person or a woman with children travelling, the guard will be able to assist. That is reasonable in such circumstances.
I agree with the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle about the GTR chief executive, Charles Horton, who seemed like a thoroughly decent man. He said that he was deeply sorry for the timetable disruptions. It is a bit unfair that he seems to be carrying the can, when I suspect the blame should be apportioned further up the food chain. The witnesses yesterday were well schooled in collective responsibility, but ultimately the buck must stop with the Secretary of State. It is not good enough just to keep saying sorry.
I am sorry; I am running very short of time.
It is another failure on the Secretary of State’s watch. We have fundamental problems with integration, lack of planning and decision making. The franchising model is broken. It is time for a new approach and a new driver at the head of the Department for Transport.
The motion on the Order Paper is
“That this House
has no confidence in the Secretary of State” and we have already heard from the fourth and final Government Back Bencher who has come along to speak in support of the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State has not stayed in the Chamber to listen to the speeches today, but if I were giving advice to him or to Conservative Back Benchers, I would suggest that they go out and buy a plaque that says, “The buck stops here” and attach it to his desk, because that is what the debate is all about. It is about the public wanting to elect politicians to run a decent railway system. I congratulate my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State on standing up and confidently saying that he wants to be a Secretary of State who runs the railways and is held accountable.
The meltdown caused by the introduction of the new rail timetable in May is just the latest in a chain of crises on our railways. We have an over-complex and fractured rail system. It has too many operators and a complex web of contractors and sub-contractors. This patchwork of competing interests militates against effective planning and delivery of the railway, making Britain’s rail system one of the most expensive and now worst run in Europe. Since 2010, fares have risen three times faster than wages, and in January we had the highest fare increases for five years. That is not to mention the more than £5 billion of public money used to subsidise the private rail network every year.
It seems to me that incompetent rail companies have become too big to fail in the eyes of this Government. The rewards are privatised, but the risks are dumped on passengers and taxpayers, who always end up footing the bill. The public are tired of paying the price for a broken privatised and franchised model. Is that any surprise? What are they getting in return? Higher fares for a worse service; botched timetables and thousands of cancellations; and a policy of de-staffing the railways in the interests of profit, regardless of the consequences for staff and the travelling public.
One of the first campaigns I backed following my election in June last year, was the RMT’s campaign to keep the guard on the train, after Merseyrail announced that it was planning to axe all 207 guards from the service when the new fleet arrives in 2020. My constituents welcome the introduction of new and modern trains—long overdue and for which the unions campaigned—but they also value the safety and security of a guard on the train.
Private rail companies are making huge profits from the travelling public, and it is completely wrong that we are presented with false choices between embracing new technology and protecting secure jobs and public safety. It is nonsense. The campaign has enjoyed the overwhelming support of the public, despite strikes, and I am glad that Merseyrail has recognised that strength of feeling and that talks at ACAS are now taking place. Both the Scottish and Welsh Governments have agreed that there will be no extension of driver-only operation on services that they are responsible for, and I hope that Merseyrail will follow suit so that passengers in my constituency are afforded the same safety standards as are enjoyed elsewhere.
However, the RMT fears that since the Secretary of State was appointed he has been blocking any similar deals in an effort to “take on” the union. These fears were again confirmed when the Public Accounts Committee recently produced a report on franchising that concluded that the blame for the protracted Southern driver-only operation dispute lay squarely at the door of the Government for not engaging properly with the trade unions.
The franchising system fails to allow for industrial relations at all. Train operating companies have little interest beyond the terms of their franchise agreements, and changes are routinely forced through without any serious consultation. The introduction of the May 2018 timetable required changes on a huge scale. Change requires the co-operation, engagement and good will of the workforce, which has been undermined constantly by the rail companies and by the Government’s handling of the DOO dispute.
The rail industry lacks a clear chain of command and clear lines of accountability, so it is easy to blame others. Ultimately, though, the buck stops with the Transport Secretary. Not only has he failed on a managerial level; he has defended, at every turn, the systemic failure of rail privatisation. My advice to him is simple. First, take responsibility. Secondly, listen to the public, who by a vast majority support a return to public ownership and public control of our railways.
When Parliament returned on
We are now close to the sixth week of chaos on GTR, with the admission that it is going to drag on for months. The Secretary of State said today that GTR will develop a temporary timetable in time for the summer holidays, but that is not good enough. It is a complete abdication of responsibility. GTR’s chief executive has resigned. Network Rail’s chief executive officer and chief financial officer have turned down their bonuses. But there has been no acceptance of responsibility from the one person we ask to sort things out when they go wrong.
Let me be clear about my view on the franchise and who is responsible. I am open-minded on rail. I believe that a transformation project as vast as the Thameslink programme, with £7 billion of taxpayer-invested money, should always have been operated and developed under the direct ownership and accountability of Government Ministers. That is why I said that it should not have been issued on a franchise or management contract back in 2014. It is equally clear that, given its record of failure, GTR cannot be in charge of the major changes that are coming in December 2018. GTR should not be responsible for this franchise when we get to December.
It is clear that franchising is broken. The series of statements, speeches and debates in the past year clearly demonstrate that there is very little good news about the franchising system on our railway, and that is because of one simple reason: there is no clear accountability. Let us be clear: the current system and the decisions that had already been taken to award this franchise could have worked with creative, intelligent leadership from the Secretary of State. That was absent. He lacks the intellectual curiosity to participate and, as I will explain, he had every opportunity to win us round.
I want to talk about two things: structures and the decisions that have been made. Let us look at the institutions that the Secretary of State has chucked under the bus during this crisis; he cited Network Rail, GTR as the operator and the industry readiness board. Network Rail is an arm’s length public body with one member—the Secretary of State. He is the shareholder and he appoints the chief executive. He cannot walk away from the crossover between his Department and Network Rail.
Secondly, the GTR arrangements are not a classic franchise. GTR gives all the ticket revenue to the DFT—about £12 billion over the seven planned years of the franchise. In return, it gets back £9 billion to run the railway. The DFT takes all the revenue risk. When the railway fails to perform, it is a black hole for taxpayers. Crucially, the DFT sets the specification for the timetable, which I will say a few more words about.
Lastly, there is the rail industry readiness board, chaired by Chris Gibb, who was appointed by the Secretary of State. The representatives on the board include Network Rail’s south-east route, Network Rail’s LNER route, Network Rail’s Anglia route, Network Rail’s Thameslink project team, the Network Rail system, and, crucially, the DFT. In the Secretary of State’s account, we are asked to believe that all these organisations assured him that everything would be fine, that there was no contradictory advice from the people within those organisations, and that three weeks before, the green light had been given to go. I find that very difficult to square with the reality.
I turn to the decisions that have been made and the opportunities to avoid this crisis. First, the initial timetable was set in the franchise ITT—invitation to tender—in 2014. We have no idea whether an operator can achieve 24 trains per hour through the Thameslink core, because the DFT assessed the four bidders and discovered that no one could design such a timetable. Even so, it gave this timetable planning task to GTR. Secondly, on rolling stock, the DFT ignored the warnings on financing trains, leading to a two-year delay in securing financing, instead of standing behind the decision. That resulted in late delivery, late trains, and a lack of training for drivers.
Thirdly, on the reliance on rest-day working, the Secretary of State is directly responsible for pouring fuel on the flames of the disputes when we could have moved to more modern working arrangements on the railway. Lastly, on the late timetable approach, the decision to downgrade the aspirations in July 2017 was made directly by him. There is no evidence that he did anything but stay asleep at the wheel when it came to seeing this through.
It is clear that the Secretary of State’s defence does not wash. Either someone is accountable for the railways or they are not. We need more than a ghost in the graveyard of the DFT.
The Secretary of State can be in no doubt from the contributions across the House today that the rail chaos is having a devastating impact on people’s lives and jobs and on the economy.
The meltdown in the timetable and the revised timetable is causing serious pain to commuters. We have heard from hon. Members north, south, east and west. The whole nation, as my hon. Friend Dr Drew said, is facing the pain. My hon. Friend Debbie Abrahams talked about how promised improvements were yet to be delivered, as did my hon. Friend Clive Efford, who highlighted that the £9 billion spent has led to more chaos. My hon. Friend Diana Johnson reminded us that the northern press has united in its call for the Secretary of State to resign.
My hon. Friends the Members for Easington (Grahame Morris), for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) and for Luton South (Mr Shuker) have all highlighted forensically how the buck stops with the Secretary of State. My hon. Friend Tracy Brabin shared heartrending stories of her constituents sardined into trains and having their safety put at risk due to overcrowding.
The Western Mail has said that the Severn tunnel will now be shut for three weeks as the rail electrification kit rusts before it has even been used. Does my hon. Friend agree that if true, this is shocking, and that there need to be further checks to ensure that this important infrastructure project will be fit for purpose?
My hon. Friend makes the point so well—more chaos on our railways.
In the past 24 hours, hundreds of passengers have shared their experiences with me, including a relationship breaking down, trains so packed that people are standing for hours while paying more for their tickets, cancellations of trains for hours on end, and people leaving home at 5.30 in the morning to face a four or five-hour commute. One person had no choice but to walk home for four hours in the rain in the middle of their exams. There is lots of stress about getting to work on time and getting home to pick up the children, and lots of stress for those sitting exams and simply not knowing if they will get there on time.
A mother had to sing “Happy Birthday” to her child from Waterloo station because she would not make it home for their birthday.
We all know that the problem is much deeper rooted. Were Robert Adley alive today, he would have seen himself truly vindicated for his call to halt the Railways Act 1993, for he foresaw how fragmentation would eventually create complete chaos across the railways, as my hon. Friend Andy McDonald, the shadow Transport Secretary, set out. Mr Adley dubbed that Bill the then Tory Government’s “poll tax on wheels”. The fate of the poll tax is a stark reminder of what happens when Governments continue to blame everyone but themselves and fail to listen to the public. The public now overwhelmingly call for the renationalisation of the railways, which Labour will deliver.
The failure of one part of the Secretary of State’s Department to talk to the other, with franchises promising one thing despite Network Rail not having the capacity to deliver on his promises, demonstrates that the buck stops with no one but the Secretary of State. No Government can sleepwalk their way through a crisis, and this weak and floundering Government most certainly cannot. To ignore the public, to ignore the industry and now to ignore Members of this House shows utter contempt, for which the public will not be forgiving—not least when people have lost their jobs, been unable to sit vital exams, or missed precious moments of family life. Passengers are exhausted from working very long days due to their uncertain commutes. Passengers are unable to plan. Passengers are unable to have any form of life as their short journeys have been replaced by waits at stations that are 10 times the length of their journeys.
It is clear that commuters are not just frustrated with this totally avoidable Government failure, but with their own MPs for not securing change at the top. Today, we all have the opportunity to make the necessary change. If it is not addressed today, it most certainly will be at the ballot box, and MPs who were silent today when they had the chance to act on behalf of their constituents will find that those constituents will vote accordingly come the next general election.
The problem is that all this rail chaos, which was well known in advance by the Secretary of State, was allowed to happen on his watch because he put his ideology of private interests ahead of public service, because he failed to co-ordinate franchises across the divides in his Department, because he did not intervene and stop the timetable changes when he had the chance to do so, and because he evidently has put himself and his career above passengers and theirs. He was warned time and again but failed to act.
This afternoon’s vote is simply about confidence. Voting against the motion or even sitting on your hands would not only highlight how hon. Members are complicit in the chaos that has ensued over the last few weeks, but show support for how the Secretary of State conducted his Department, his actions in the months preceding the introduction of the new timetable, and the way in which he has let the public down consistently over the last 30 days. Constituents who were late to work again this morning will want to know how their MP voted today—did they place their confidence in the Secretary of State, despite all that has happened, or were they willing to stand up for their constituents and vote for this motion? When constituents miss their family meal and time with their children tonight, will they look up to their MP for taking action through the first step of removing the heart of the problem—the Secretary of State—or will they remember that their MP, when given the opportunity to do something, sidestepped the issue?
Perhaps the Prime Minister will show her full support for the Secretary of State this afternoon by neither voting for the motion nor taking any action to replace the person at the heart of the crisis, thus tying her own leadership to this national public disaster, or perhaps she will start to distance herself from all that has happened and find someone who can respond to this crisis. Surely she cannot continue to back a Secretary of State who has not only failed rail passengers but will continue to preside over the chaos that, as we have heard, he will unable to resolve for weeks if not months. Anyone who understands the need to make a fresh start after a public disaster knows that they need to deal with those responsible, which in this case means pulling Northern and GTR back into public ownership with immediate effect. The public will not forget how the avoidable rail chaos was woefully responded to.
There is one more issue that I want to raise: public safety. Even as we speak, public safety is being put at risk. We heard the Secretary of State take a swipe at the unions—he always does—but they represent the very people who work relentlessly across the network and, in particular, have kept passengers safe over the past few weeks. They have taken action today because they fear for public safety as guards are removed from trains. They are right to do so. If anything makes the case for guards on trains, it is the experiences of the last month. The guards are the very people who help the public in times of need. Labour will never put ideology above safety, let alone public service.
There is another public service issue on which the Secretary of State is failing. In this chaos, I have heard reports of stations crammed with passengers and trains crammed with people. Those people are fortunate to get on board—disabled people have been left stranded at stations because they cannot push their way on to trains. This is a seriously unsafe situation. The country must remember above all that national disasters have occurred when people have been squeezed into spaces that are too tight to hold them. When they are not just standing for hours on their commute but physically restrained on trains, it is easy to imagine how someone could fall on the tracks or fall ill on a train, especially in this heat. If nothing more, all hon. and right hon. Members should vote with Labour to put down a clear marker that they urge the Government to address this very serious issue. The choice today is to stand up for passengers, or to stand up for the Secretary of State and his failure on the railways. I trust that I will see hon. Members from both sides of the House in the Aye Lobby shortly.
The disruption faced by passengers over the past three weeks on parts of the GTR and Northern franchises is unacceptable. That was reflected in the powerful contributions we heard from my right hon. Friends the Members for Wokingham (John Redwood) and for Sevenoaks (Sir Michael Fallon), and my hon. Friends the Members for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami), and for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman). It was also reflected by Opposition Members, including the hon. Members for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin), for Luton South (Mr Shuker) and for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin), who spoke powerfully about the difficult travelling conditions that their constituents have faced in recent weeks.
I want to reassure colleagues on both sides of the House that the Department’s overriding priority is to restore the reliability of service across the network. The Secretary of State has left the rail industry under no illusion that it must urgently improve its operational response including, if necessary, by changing top management, as is now happening at GTR. He has commissioned an independent inquiry by Stephen Glaister of the Office of Rail and Road, the independent regulator, to examine why we are in this situation and to reduce the chances of it ever happening again.
Turning to the performance on Northern, passengers continue to experience disruption on some parts of the network. There is a long way to go until performance is where it needs to be, but we are beginning to turn the corner. The introduction of a temporary timetable by Northern on
That all sounds very nice—a real improvement. However, according to the BBC this morning—this is certainly the evidence that we have all heard from our constituents—11,000 trains on the Northern rail network have been either cancelled or delayed for more than 30 minutes. That is tens of thousands of constituents who have been really badly put out, often left without a route to work, school, college or training.
The cancellation of services is now progressively more and more planned by Northern as it seeks to stabilise the timetable and to ensure that the travelling public—the constituents of hon. Members on both sides of the House—can plan their journeys with greater assurance. This improvement, and the stabilisation and increased reliability, must continue over coming weeks. Northern plans to run the timetable until the end of July, when it will review progress and take stock. At that point, it will hope significantly to increase the number of timetabled services while ensuring continued improvements in stability.
The crux of the performance issues, as hon. Members have recognised, is the availability of drivers with the correct training. I am happy to say that, as a result of Northern’s hard work with ASLEF on rest day working, they were able to announce last week that they had reached an agreement for the immediate introduction of a new rest day working agreement. This will allow for more training and a better service for passengers sooner.
Let me turn to GTR’s performance. GTR is also working to increase the predictability and reliability of journeys on its network. It is working actively to reduce on-the-day cancellations, and is now updating its timetables on a Friday evening for the following week, enabling passengers to plan ahead more effectively. Alternative travel arrangements are in place. For example, passengers on the Brighton main line can have their Thameslink tickets accepted on Gatwick Express, and next month GTR will introduce a full temporary timetable across its network as the next step to improve reliability and performance for passengers.
It is worth noting that some parts of the GTR network, including all of Southern, are now experiencing more train services and better performance than ever before. However, I do not consider the service to be anywhere near approaching one that I or passengers would find acceptable and, as the Secretary of State said, we are examining why GTR is taking longer than Northern to improve services. The review that has been commissioned will look at whether GTR has met and is continuing to meet its contractual obligations in the planning and delivery of the May timetable.
That question will be addressed in the review, which is looking carefully at GTR’s performance and whether it has breached any of its contractual franchise commitments. That is not something that we can pre-empt. We are looking at it carefully in the review and, as the Secretary of State said in his opening remarks, nothing is off the table.
The Minister says that, but why is Govia being allowed to re-bid for franchises or to bid for others?
As the hon. Gentleman will understand, it is important that the Department acts consistently and treats train operating companies consistently across the industry. The Department is carefully reviewing whether GTR has breached any of its franchise commitments, and we will do that thoroughly, following all correct due processes, as everybody has a right to expect us to.
Let me turn to compensation. We are clear that passengers on the lines that have been severely affected by these issues will receive additional compensation. The Department is working closely with Network Rail, train operators and stakeholders to introduce a special compensation scheme as soon as possible. We have already recommended to the board of Transport for the North that passengers who buy weekly, monthly or annual tickets on affected Northern and TPE routes should be eligible to claim up to four weeks’ compensation. As part of the scheme, the industry will be providing financial support to Transport for the North to deal with other costs that have arisen from the disruption.
I expect the board of TFN to confirm the final details of the scheme by its next meeting on
I hope that this has reassured right hon. and hon. Members of the seriousness with which the Government are taking the disruption facing passengers. We are taking action to resolve the problems as quickly as possible, to compensate passengers appropriately, and to learn the lessons that will prevent this happening again in the future.
I am about to close the doors, as I normally do after eight minutes, but I understand that there is a problem with the lifts in Norman Shaw. I am acutely aware that some colleagues are coming by wheelchair and other, more difficult means. I am therefore purposely delaying the closing of the doors, not for those who are already here, who I trust will vote as swiftly as possible, but for colleagues who are struggling, especially in wheelchairs. It is hard to believe that a lift was full and a colleague in a wheelchair could not get into it.
I am looking hopefully to see if we have succeeded—we have almost succeeded, but not quite. I could describe the wheelchair—[Interruption.] Thank you, Mr Wishart. It is a long time since I sparred with you. I could do with a point of order right now, which of course I cannot take in the middle of a Division. You do not normally get a filibuster from the Chair on the matter of closing the doors, but I am now satisfied that all colleagues who had difficulty in getting here because of a lift problem have had a chance to vote. It is hard to believe that other colleagues did not vacate the lift and allow the lady in the wheelchair to go in first, but that is up to them. Lock the doors!
The House divided:
Ayes 285, Noes 305.