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Confidence in the Secretary of State for Transport

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:14 pm on 19th June 2018.

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Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Conservative, Bexhill and Battle 3:14 pm, 19th June 2018

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.