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Confidence in the Secretary of State for Transport

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:40 pm on 19th June 2018.

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Photo of Gavin Shuker Gavin Shuker Labour/Co-operative, Luton South 3:40 pm, 19th June 2018

When Parliament returned on 4 June after the recess, I challenged the Secretary of State, telling him that he was in great trouble over this situation, not least because it would run on for months and months. There has been little to cause me to reassess those comments in the past three or four weeks. For me and my constituents in Luton who travel by train regularly, it is clear that this chaos is not going anywhere quickly, but we are yet to establish who is responsible for the chaos not only when the changes were implemented, but as it is sorted out. I am afraid that the attitude of the Secretary of State has led us to today’s position, whereby we will shortly vote on whether we have confidence in him.

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.