Rail Cancellations and Service Levels

– in the House of Commons at 10:30 am on 1st December 2022.

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Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Secretary of State for Transport 10:30 am, 1st December 2022

(Urgent Question): To ask the Rail Minister if he will make a statement on rail cancellations and services, in particular across the north and nationwide.

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I thank the hon. Lady for her urgent question, which gives me the opportunity to set out the Government’s disappointment with the experience of many passengers, not just across the north, but in other parts of the country. We recognise that current performance is not acceptable and is having a significant effect on passengers and the northern economy.

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

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

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

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

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

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and Mr Speaker for granting this important urgent question. Rail services across the north are once again in meltdown. Today, almost 40 services have been cancelled on TransPennine Express alone—and those are just the published figures, because they were cancelled overnight. People are cut off from jobs and opportunities, investors I spoke to this morning in Manchester are thinking twice about investing in the north, and businesses are unable to recruit because their potential employees simply cannot rely on the train to get to work. The damage that this fiasco is doing is enormous, and in just 11 days, major timetable changes are due to come into force. I do not say it lightly, but if this were happening elsewhere in the country, the Government would have taken far greater action by now. Instead, they have—not just for weeks, but for months and years—forced the north to settle for a sub-standard service and to accept delays, cancellations and overcrowding.

Not only did Ministers allow that, but they actually rewarded the abject failure of the operators. Six years ago, TransPennine Express had exactly the same issues it faces today. Then, as now, it blamed staff shortages and rest day working. It said six years ago that it would recruit drivers and improve resilience, but here we are again, in crisis—and the public are paying the price. Have the Government sanctioned operators or demanded improvement? No. They continue to reward failing operators such as Avanti West Coast by extending their contracts. Yesterday, it was revealed that they signed off a decision for Avanti to hand over £12 million in taxpayers’ cash as dividends to its shareholders.

Enough is enough. We cannot continue like this. It is time for Ministers to take action. Will they put operators on a binding remedial plan to fully restore services or face penalties and withdrawal of the contract? Will they claw back the taxpayers’ money that Ministers have allowed to flow out in dividends? Can the Minister confirm whether the Secretary of State is preventing an offer on rest day working between operators and unions? Enough is enough. We cannot continue like this.

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I agree with the hon. Lady: we cannot continue like this. That is why we have set in place a series of talks and negotiations aimed at changing working practices so that train operators are not reliant on seeking the approval of workforce to run a seven-day operation. That just does not work for anyone—management, workforce or, indeed, passengers—because the train operators are then required to seek the voluntary assistance of workforce to work on certain days. The hon. Lady says that we cannot carry on like this and that enough is enough, so I hope that she will join me in pushing for reforms.

With regard to Network Rail reforms, a 4% plus 4% offer has been put on the table. That can be self-funded and allow workforce to move to better, more modern working jobs with more interaction with and assistance for passengers, and a better experience for workforce and the passenger. Yet we have been unable to reach an agreement. The hon. Lady refers to timetable changes. Those are vital for us to increase the number of Avanti services again, but if we have industrial action in December, it will be even more challenging to put them in place.

I join the hon. Lady in saying that enough is enough and that we need change. This Government are seeking to implement change, but as Opposition Members will know, that cannot be dealt with unilaterally. It requires the agreement of the unions to modernise and change working practices. That will give train operators the ability to roster on a seven-day working basis and to see training go through on a much swifter basis. We will then have the workforce in place and the resilience. I call on the hon. Lady to not just talk about the fact that we need change, but to work with us and to influence the unions to get that change delivered.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

London North Eastern Railway seems to have been less affected than other services. Does that not underline that importance of the campaign by my hon. Friend Martin Vickers and me to get the through service from London via Market Rasen to Cleethorpes, so that we can take the pressure off TransPennine Express? Can we get on with the through train, which has been promised again and again? Action this day!

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

My right hon. Friend makes a great bid that is linked into this matter. I am happy to meet him and my hon. Friend Martin Vickers to discuss that further. He is absolutely right that we see a knock-on effect. Take Northern, for example. It has been less impacted by the matters I have referenced than TPE and Avanti, but the knock-on from those operators—particularly TPE—has caused it to fall in parts as well. He is absolutely right to point out that contagion can pass from one part of the network to another. I will happily meet him.

Photo of Gavin Newlands Gavin Newlands Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport)

Over the past two days, TransPennine Express has managed to run a total of 42% of its timetabled cross-border services from Glasgow Central. That is from a timetable that was already slashed, as TPE struggled to provide even a basic service to passengers. Add to that the Avanti shambles and cross-border services are a disaster. It simply is not good enough, and there are real implications for the cross-border economy.

Two separate industrial disputes involving ScotRail and the Scottish Government have been resolved this year, in contrast to the ongoing disputes across talks that have dragged on for months and are only now involving Government Ministers. The RMT’s general secretary Mick Lynch said yesterday:

“In Scotland and Wales, RMT has settled similar disputes with the support of the governments there but where companies are controlled by the DfT, time is running out.”

Previous Ministers have stood at the Dispatch Box and told us that disputes were for the talks and Network Rail to resolve, but clearly that stance is no longer fit for purpose. This Government are letting down Scotland and the north of England, and it is now well past time for rail to be fully devolved to Scotland. Will this welcome new and shiny team at the DFT meet me to discuss how we advance that?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

This shiny rail Minister will always happily meet the hon. Member. I have always enjoyed working closely with him in our previous roles, so I am happy to discuss matters with him. He talks about the ministerial approach, and I think it should be put on the record. Yesterday, the Secretary of State for Transport travelled up to the north to meet the northern mayors to discuss these issues. We want to work collaboratively with all those who can influence change. The Secretary of State’s trip yesterday demonstrates that we do not just talk about it—we actually want to deliver on it, as well. Both the Secretary of State and I have talked of the need to reach some form of agreement. We have not used the language that might have been expected or heard in the past. We want to work closely. We have both met Mick Lynch and his counter at the Transport Salaried Staffs Association. I am due to meet again with Mick Lynch, the trade unions, the train operators and Network Rail, so that will be the employers and the trade unions, with a Minister in the room, not to negotiate, but to try to facilitate some form of end and to allow this change to come through. I will happily meet the hon. Gentleman and all across the piece so that we can make a difference and get this settled.

Photo of Sara Britcliffe Sara Britcliffe Conservative, Hyndburn

As someone who travels on the Avanti West Coast service on a weekly basis, I know that delays and cancellations are the norm. Customers are being charged unreasonable prices for a very poor service. Can my hon. Friend confirm that he is meeting Avanti regularly to discuss its performance, as well as giving it six months to roll out a recovery plan and deliver long overdue reliability for passengers?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I am sorry for the experiences that my hon. Friend and her constituents have experienced, and that goes to all Members of this House, too. With regard to Avanti, from December it plans to operate 264 daily train services on weekdays, which is a step up from the 180 daily services at present. That would also be greater than the number prior to the refusal on rest day working, which has triggered this issue over the past six months. Of course, that is all contingent on having that co-operation, which I am keen to seek to get into place. The Office of Rail and Road has looked at the plans and signed them off, and we and officials meet Avanti on a weekly basis to hold it to account. We will continue to do so. As my hon. Friend points out, a shorter-term contract is in place. We need performance improvements to go beyond that stage.

Photo of Jeff Smith Jeff Smith Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

Yesterday, the West Midlands Mayor was late for that meeting with the Secretary of State to discuss the problems on trains because her train was cancelled. You couldn’t make it up. My constituents in south Manchester do not want to hear that the Government are disappointed with the problems; they want to hear that some action is being taken. What can I do to reassure my constituents that the Government will get a grip and get the train services sorted on the Avanti west coast main line and the cross-Pennine routes?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

Again, I pass on my disappointment with the experience that the hon. Gentleman has outlined. I want to be clear: we have been going on like this for years because we have a railway that just does not operate on a seven-day basis. We have leisure that has grown to 115% over weekends, and we still cannot roster the workforce. We require an agreement. Can one imagine Tesco operating on that basis? It just would not work. The tragedy when we look at the north is that we have a £96 billion infrastructure investment plan through the integrated rail plan, so we want to invest further in the north. However, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: if we cannot deliver the daily services right now, there is a danger that people will turn their back on rail. The only way to get long-term performance improvements is to reform the way we work the railways. We are trying to put those reforms in place, but it requires agreement from union and workforce, as well as Government willing.

Photo of John Penrose John Penrose Conservative, Weston-Super-Mare

I completely support the Rail Minister in his comments that something has to change and that we cannot go on as we are. Can he confirm that the pattern of performance and service levels is dramatically better for providers offering open access—in other words, competitive services—compared with some of the more traditional post-franchising ones such as Avanti? It is vital for passengers to have choice on the same track between different providers, so that if one of them is suffering from driver shortages or strikes, the others may be able to pick up the slack or at least provide a service when others fail.

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I thank my hon. Friend, a former Minister, who has great expertise in and policy knowledge of this matter. He is absolutely right to champion open access. When we can actually drive competition through the system, one tends to see better outcomes and choice for passengers as a result. Open access, as we have discussed before, has some constraints. He certainly believes there is more that can be done, and I agree with him. We are keen—and I have asked my officials to look further at how we can do this—to provide more access for open access, and I am very happy to discuss that with him further.

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Shadow Minister (Home Office)

The Minister has just said that it is not a seven-day-a-week service, but actually it is not an any-day-of-the-week service currently. We have already heard from my hon. Friend Louise Haigh at the Dispatch Box that almost 40 services have been cancelled on TransPennine Express in just the last 24 hours in the middle of the working week. There is nothing new at all about the driver shortages that have been crippling service provision in the north. Can he be very specific about what the Government are doing to ensure that driver provision is there so that we can unlock the potential of our towns and our cities in the north of England?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I thank the hon. Member, and she is absolutely right. We cannot be in a situation where we are relying on good will; we need to make sure we have enough drivers in the system. The difficulty we have is that a driver contract for train operators is for 35 hours over four days, which leaves us with that block. We have struggled to get enough drivers through the training course due to covid and the restrictions in the cab, which is why there has been catch-up. This has been exacerbated by covid, but I want to move away from a situation in which we have to rely on good will. I want certainty, because that is certainty for the workforce, for the train operators and, most importantly, for the passengers that their train will arrive. However, it does require such an agreement to be in place for us to deliver the specific measures she has asked from me.

Photo of Anna Firth Anna Firth Conservative, Southend West

Does the Minister agree with me that service levels across the country are just as important? There have been 10 negative stories in the last month about the c2c line, which hard-working commuters from Southend West and Leigh-on-Sea need, including signal failures, overrunning engineering works and rush-hour queues to buy tickets. Would the Secretary of State sit down with me to discuss this level of service, and in particular our long-awaited disabled access at Chalkwell station and the long-awaited contactless ticketing?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I had perhaps better not promise that the Secretary of State will sit down with my hon. Friend because that may be above my pay grade, but I certainly will, and I will certainly ask him if he would like to do so. We are very keen to work with all hon. Members across the House on the specific issues they may have, hers among them.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that, while this urgent question is on cancellations in the north, we are conscious that there has been a knock-on effect across the country and the network is not performing as we would like it to. One of the issues, and I again recognise that this comes down to the morale of both the management and the workforce, is that there is a contagion effect after strikes. We want a modern railway in which all in the workforce feel they have a future, with their jobs changing as ours all change and evolve, where there is more interaction with passengers and more pride as a result and we therefore see more passengers enjoying the experience. That is the passion I have for what we can do with rail. We just need everybody to work together to deliver it.

Photo of Ian Mearns Ian Mearns Chair, Backbench Business Committee, Chair, Backbench Business Committee

First and foremost, the train operators need to recruit and train more staff more quickly, and that would help to alleviate some of the strains we are working under. However, even when trains are working to timetable, travel times between cities and towns in the north of England are unacceptably slow—for instance, one hour and 20 minutes from Newcastle to Middlesbrough, which is 40 miles, and two hours from Newcastle to Carlisle, which is 60 miles. That is unacceptably slow due to antiquated infrastructure. When is something going to be done about this antiquated infrastructure in the north of England, so that we can travel as quickly as anyone anywhere else in the country?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

We are about to enter the next five-year control period where we will look at renewal. Where we have assets that have become tired, we will look at replacing them and moving away from some of the older forms of working to, say, digital signalling, which would allow more trains to enter blocks. I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss that further, as he may have indicated that he would like. He is right that trains are a lot slower in certain parts of the country than others; I experience that in the south-east. It takes two hours to get to London from Bexhill, but the exact same distance in miles to Milton Keynes takes 32 minutes. There are parts of the country that do not get the same deal as others and we need to work even harder for them to make sure that their trains arrive.

Photo of Ian Liddell-Grainger Ian Liddell-Grainger Conservative, Bridgwater and West Somerset

If we are talking about service level, Taunton station is an example of what we have got wrong in this country. We spent an enormous of amount of money on redoing the station, but the parking is inadequate; cars queue back to the road to get in; people cannot get in if they are disabled or have heavy bags; and people have to walk 100 yards to get a bus to go anywhere. The service level of our stations is not right, so how on earth can the service level of our trains be right? If the first points of call for people—the ticket offices, the staff who work in the stations and the type of stations we have—are not there, we have a fundamental problem. Can we please look at the way that stations are run in this country?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

My hon. Friend is right that we need to ensure that the entire experience attracts passengers and brings them back. It is about not just the service level, but the station experience. I travelled through Taunton station on Monday on my way to the reopened Okehampton line from Exeter. I am afraid that I did not stop off, so I was not able to experience what he has described, but I am happy to look at that further and discuss it with him. We have a station modernisation fund and the Access for All programme that is delivering more accessibility to passengers, which is vital. I will have a chat with him about it.

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

As well as being a global icon of the north-east, the Tyne bridge is a critical part of our transport infrastructure. We are all the more reliant on it given the atrocious levels of service on the railways and buses, and given the lack of investment in our northern infrastructure, such as Northern Powerhouse Rail. The much-needed restoration of the Tyne bridge from its current dilapidated state will lead to further disruption to our transport links, which really cannot get any worse. Will the Minister meet me urgently to see what can be done to mitigate the impact on our transport links of restoring our great Tyne bridge to its full glory in time for its 100th birthday?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

As I said, I am keen to meet as many hon. Members as require it—no doubt my officials will be tearing their hair out—and I am happy to meet the hon. Lady. We certainly know that, because our railways were built by our pioneering Victorians, much of the infrastructure needs renewal, some of which can be particularly complex and expensive to deliver. Ownership can have an impact on that as well. I am keen to meet her to find out more and see what we can do.

Photo of Jo Gideon Jo Gideon Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent Central

My hon. Friend might have seen the picture of me sitting on the floor of an Avanti train that was picked up by the media. Avanti’s response was mealy mouthed and gave every excuse under the sun—unions, working practices, leaves on the line, engineering works—but there is no excuse for bad management. As well as inefficient services, the services do not run on time and the ticketing is shoddy. If someone gets on a train, they cannot have a cup of coffee because the machines do not work, and there is overcharging. Everything to do with the Avanti rail service is appalling and I urge the Government to look at it in the round, not just at the reasons it gives for not running an efficient service.

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I assure my hon. Friend that I do not just take the assurances that, “This is very difficult for us for all these third-party reasons.” We look at what every part of the system can deliver, including the management and those responsible for the contract. I have also heard other experiences, not least of Mr Speaker on his Avanti services, that show that things are absolutely not good enough for passengers.

We need to get Avanti to do better and we need to help it to do better as well. Where matters are within its control, I assure my hon. Friend that we will hold it to account through the Office of Rail and Road and the regular meetings that I have. Where matters are not within its control, we require it to do even more to mitigate them. I am keen that we see an improvement to the tone that is given out, the customer service and the updates.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, Chairman of the House of Commons Members' Fund

The other day, I read with amazement an article in The Guardian which said, with regard to cancellations on the TransPennine Express, that between the middle of October and the middle of November, the reported figures were between 5% and 12% a week, but actual cancellations were over 20% each week. The difference is that train operators do not count as a cancellation a train that is cancelled before 10 pm the night before. When train operators are penalised under their contracts for non-performance, are the cancellation figures used those that the train operators report, or those that passengers experience?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I will write to the hon. Gentleman and specify how those figures are calculated. I will also give him up-to-date figures from the methodology that we calculate. I am confident that those figures recognise the same experience that passengers have suffered and he has described, but I will write to him and set that out in full.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

The Minister comes to his position having been a very successful and, I think, very thoughtful Chair of the Transport Committee. He will know that there is a balance of blame—it is not just the trade unions, but also the operating companies. He will also know that lines such as London Northwestern had problems two years ago with a shortage of drivers, but it now seems to be working well. How long does he think it will take Avanti to get the number of drivers required for us to get a reliable service?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

My hon. Friend is very kind. I have always enjoyed working with him, and I know he has a great passion for rail projects within his constituency, as we discussed last night. Avanti’s plan is to bring on 100 new drivers, and to change the timetable on 11 December so that those drivers can add more services. The concern is that that takes place at the same time as industrial action is scheduled, over the month of December and into January. Given all the hard work from the drivers and those training them, and from the management to try to get those services in place, it will be difficult if we see all that undermined by wider industrial action. The plan is for 11 December, but if we cannot get the strikes called off, my concern is about our ability to roll that out.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care)

I accept the sincerity of the Minister, but “disappointment” from the Government frankly does not cut it. These issues have long been known for at least the past six years or more. They are not new or particular to Avanti and the TransPennine Express, which are just manifestations of the problem right now. Last month we had more than 4,000 cancelled services, on top of 17,800 fewer services that had been pulled from the timetable. Why are Ministers not demanding a binding remedial plan urgently to restore the services that are desperately needed in communities, not just in the north of England but all over the country?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. For too long we have worked in a manner that does not allow us to plan ahead and give certainty to the passenger or the workforce. TransPennine Express had too much reliance on the rest-day agreement. It seemed to operate because it was at 1.75 wage, which is the highest. Two other train operators operate at 1.5, and the others are much lower or have just normal rates. That was a high rate, and we could not get ASLEF to continue to operate it, which exacerbated the issue. There is too much reliance on rest-day working. When it operates, it works well, because train operators do not have as many drivers in place, but the train drivers earn overtime from that. When industrial action comes in, that breaks down. We want to move, and our modernisation plans and reforms, which we are trying to get an agreement to put in place, would deliver a seven-day railway where we are not reliant on rest-day working. That is the kind of certainty we want brought in, and that is the only way we will ever be able to avoid such issues in the years to come.

Photo of Chris Clarkson Chris Clarkson Conservative, Heywood and Middleton

It will not have escaped the Minister’s attention that a number of MPs from Greater Manchester are in their places. The west coast main line is essential to our local economy, so we need three services to London an hour, but as far as I can tell, the schedule is currently designed using a tombola. I am convinced that the Minister is serious about getting modernisation in the way in which Avanti runs the service, but should there be no significant improvement at the end of the six-month period, will he outline the steps he will take to ensure that we have a functioning service? Greater Manchester cannot afford what is going on at the moment.

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

Our plan, as signed off by the Office of Rail and Road, was always to see Avanti deliver the extra 100 drivers, change the timetable and then bring services back. As I specified, that would have seen us operating more services than had been the case before the end of June, when arrangements saw drivers not taking up rest-day working. At the moment, we are contingent on the drivers to ensure that that new timetable is put in place. However, it is a two-way process—we cannot unilaterally force it, because we do not have the ability.

On my hon. Friend’s question about the contract, it was renewed for six months, but we will not wait until the end of those six months—we will need to see improvements in place at the beginning of the year to make that decision. I make the point again that where matters are in the control of Avanti to deliver, we hold it to account. Where matters are outside of its control and in the control of the unions, we must take that into account as well.

Photo of Navendu Mishra Navendu Mishra Opposition Whip (Commons)

The parent company of TransPennine Express is FirstGroup and Avanti West Coast is a joint venture with 70% ownership by FirstGroup. Does the Minister see the link? Gross mismanagement by FirstGroup is causing utter chaos in my constituency and damaging the economy of Stockport and the wider north-west region.

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I am aware of that. I am also aware that the lead negotiator for the train operators is the chief executive of FirstGroup and that those two entities have had those specific issues targeted against them while other train operators perhaps have not. Again, my tone and my message is to try to bring all parties together so that we can improve the service for our passengers and give them more confidence. If we are not careful—this applies to everybody involved in rail, including me—people will give up on rail, and that will cause us even greater challenges in funding the timetable that we have. It is in the interests of management, shareholders—they continue to benefit if revenues grow—and absolutely the workforce and the passengers that we turn this around. We will do that only by working together.

Photo of Simon Fell Simon Fell Conservative, Barrow and Furness

My constituents are fortunate to rely on both Northern and Avanti—it feels like they have won a ghastly lottery. Yesterday, I got an email from Steve, a constituent based in Ulverston, who travels from Kirkby to Whitehaven to work in Sellafield. He says that the trains are late and cancelled, that there are horrendous bus replacements and that, on return, there are direct trains that miss out the smaller stops. It is an unviable service. The service on Avanti is abysmal, but those who rely on smaller operators are also seeing a really bad service. With that in mind, will my hon. Friend confirm that he will do everything in his power to restore trains to a level of service that our constituents all deserve and expect?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

My hon. Friend is right. Of course, Northern is in the control of the operator of last resort, which is what would occur in the event that we took away a contract from one of the private train operators. Perhaps his point on Northern demonstrates that we can talk of stripping contracts away, but ultimately how the entire system operates needs to change; just changing the contracts does not change the passenger experience for the better. I am sorry to hear of his constituent Steve’s experiences. Such experiences have been relayed to me by many colleagues on the Government side who have just had enough. With Northern, we see that, while it has a 6% cancellation rate, the knock-on from TPE is causing many of its challenges. That is another example of how one part of the system can knock over another part.

Photo of Christian Wakeford Christian Wakeford Opposition Whip (Commons)

Another month, another urgent question to discuss how companies such as Avanti are taking not only our constituents, but all of us, for mugs. As I have mentioned to the Minister before, we keep on getting claims of progress and improvement, but we continue to reward failure. Just last week, the last direct train from Manchester to Euston was at 2.15 pm. The Beveridge report was released 80 years ago, and one of the five giant evils it identified was idleness; we are certainly seeing that with Avanti, and I would argue we saw it from the Government prior to this mess as well. When will the Department stop idling and sort out this mess?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

The Department is certainly not idling: our officials work incredibly hard, and we hold train operators to account to ensure they do everything they can. As I mentioned, the Secretary of State was up in Leeds yesterday meeting the Mayors of Manchester, Leeds, and the other great northern cities. We are focused on not just putting the reforms in place, but seeking the agreement of all those who we require to do their part to ensure we get agreement—as I have said, it is not a unilateral process, but one that requires parties to come together. Tomorrow, I will be sitting down with the employers, trade union representatives and Network Rail to see what more we can do. There is certainly no idleness on our part.

Photo of Natalie Elphicke Natalie Elphicke Conservative, Dover

I put on record the usually good service that we receive from Southeastern workers. However, rail use is still not where it needs to be, and there is no doubt that days—indeed, now months —of strike action are affecting rail use and confidence in the railways. Can my hon. Friend confirm that he and his ministerial colleagues are doing everything they can to urge the unions to get around the table, end these strikes, and stop damaging confidence in all our railways?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I thank my hon. Friend. I know she is a passionate advocate for transport in Dover as a whole; I am a fellow Southeastern user, so I experience some of what she has talked to.

I am particularly concerned about the month of December and the impact it will have on the economy. A series of strikes will cover a four-week period over Christmas. Not just the strikes but the unofficial action can have the exact same ramifications. As someone who is passionate about rail, and always has been—as someone who believes that rail has a great future, and who sees the investment that this Government are putting into rail, not least in the north—my concern is that we will never really harness all those improvements if we cannot change the current working practices. I urge everybody to think about what more they can do in the spirit of compromise. It is Christmas; I would urge settlement.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I thank the Minister for his very concrete and helpful answers, as we would expect of him. As we approach the festive season, thousands of people—some of them my constituents—will be travelling from all over the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, visiting their loved ones and friends this Christmas. The announcement of further rail strikes has stoked fear of disruption for so many, and has introduced uncertainty in their travel arrangements. What immediate steps are being taken to find a solution and ensure the smooth running of public transport as we come into the busiest weeks of the year, so that my constituents will know that they can travel and get where they are going on time?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

What the hon. Gentleman has described is a huge concern. Last December, there was uncertainty about the ability to travel; we thought we had moved beyond that. As that uncertainty related to health, one could say that it was beyond control, but this action is within control: it is still possible for the unions to take the strike action down so that people can get to see their loved ones across the country, and so that businesses can reopen and recover after the terrible time they have had. For many companies, December is make-or-break time: if they do not get a December in, they may not see January. We all have to think about this in an altruistic manner and see what more we can do. We will certainly do so on our side of the fence; we need the trade unions—they, ultimately, can call off the strikes or action them—to take those strikes down.

Photo of Mark Jenkinson Mark Jenkinson Conservative, Workington

The number of daily services from Carlisle and Penrith to Euston that my constituents use is significantly reduced from previous levels, and the services that are running are timetabled at a much longer length than they used to be. Despite that, the percentage of services that are running on time hardly hits double figures. It is not the fault of my fare-paying constituents that Avanti has chosen short-term cost savings over driver training. Why are we delaying the inevitable, and when will we strip Avanti of the contract?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

Again, I am sorry for the experiences that my hon. Friend and his constituents have had to endure. It takes about 18 months to fully train a driver. A lot of hon. Members will find that extraordinary, but I sat in a cab on Monday and I saw that it is a technical and difficult job. However, there may be more improvements that we can make. During covid, there was a hold-up in what would have been the usual 18-month period, because it was not possible for the unions to have workforce next to workforce for health and safety reasons. However, I again make the point that we should not rely on rest-day working arrangements. We should have driver resilience in place so that we can fully run a seven-day train operation. That requires not only us to implement change, but the workforce, through the unions, to accept that change. I very much hope that they will and that all hon. Members will do everything they can to persuade them and make that case.

Photo of Greg Smith Greg Smith Conservative, Buckingham

My hon. Friend is right to point out the myriad issues that the railways face. Chiltern Railways serves a great many of my constituents, and delays, the use of shorter trains than expected and cancellations have crept in, when we never really saw that with Chiltern before. The difference seems to be Network Rail’s ability to allow flexibility in the timetabling for Chiltern to run additional services or move its rolling stock around. What can we do, with Network Rail, to get greater flexibility to allow Chiltern to serve its consumers much better?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I know my hon. Friend’s line well, because he represents my mum and my family. He is right that we need to ask not only the workforce, but Network Rail to modernise. For example, is it still the case that engineering works should take place at weekends, when we have seen the greatest growth at weekends and use has perhaps dropped off on other days of the week? I am not saying that we will change things in that way, but we will look at ensuring that we have the best possible case in relation to when Network Rail intervenes on the asset and takes it over. I absolutely give him that assurance. I am sure that, as a member of the Transport Committee, he can give me much more guidance on how I should do that.

Photo of Chris Loder Chris Loder Conservative, West Dorset

I warmly welcome my hon. Friend’s work to facilitate the negotiations and encourage unions and rail providers to get to a deal that solves these issues. A month ago, however, the TUC paid fully for members of the shadow Cabinet to go to Madrid to get hints and tips from the Spanish unions on how to use hard-working union members to fulfil Labour’s objectives to fully disrupt the railway. [Interruption.] Will my hon. Friend join me in calling on Labour to get off the picket line and condemn the official and unofficial strike action that we are seeing?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

My hon. Friend is another esteemed member of the Transport Committee and I thank him for what he does. I heard some responses from Opposition Members. Perhaps I can set the tone on this: I will work collaboratively with the trade unions, and I recognise that they have a role to play in representing their members, and that they can influence change, because they can deliver it. I want to do that and have always done that with the trade union leaders with whom I have worked. They have that pledge from me.

I will meet Mick Lynch tomorrow and I very much hope that we can have a good conversation. However, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. When push comes to shove, the train operators, Network Rail and the Government are not putting the strikes on; the trade unions are. They have the choice as to whether we go ahead with a really damaging December for the railway and the economy, or whether we lift that gloom and have a good, positive Christmas. It is in their hands and I very much hope that they take the opportunity to take down the strikes.

Photo of Elliot Colburn Elliot Colburn Conservative, Carshalton and Wallington

This is not just about Avanti and Northern Rail. Commuters coming from Carshalton, Wallington, Hackbridge and Carshalton Beeches stations are also struggling because of morning commuter changes made by Govia Thameslink Railway. Will the Minister agree to another meeting with me and colleagues representing constituencies served by Southern and Thameslink to ensure that that issue can be tackled?

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend. He talked about other colleagues in the GTR network and that includes me, because that is an operator in my constituency. We recognise that improvements are needed from GTR, and officials are working with GTR in that regard. That is important; I recognise that although this urgent question is about cancellations to the north, we should be talking about service improvements that need to be made to the entire network.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

I thank the Minister for responding to the urgent question for almost 45 minutes.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

If it relates to the preceding business, I will take it.

Photo of Jeff Smith Jeff Smith Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.

I thank those hon. Members who pointed out the slip of the tongue in my question to the Minister. Apparently, I said that the West Midlands Mayor was late for a meeting with the Secretary of State; I meant, of course, the West Yorkshire Mayor. I would not want to impugn Andy Street’s timekeeping, so I am grateful for the opportunity to correct the record. I am not criticising Tracy Brabin’s timekeeping either: the fault, as usual, lies with TransPennine Express.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Thank you very much. That is now on the record.