– in the House of Commons at 3:35 pm on 20th March 2023.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the progress the Government are making in improving rail services for passengers.
Let me begin by saying how pleased I am that, today, members of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers at Network Rail have voted to accept a 5% plus 4% pay offer over two years. Seventy-six per cent. of members voted to accept the offer, on a turnout of nearly 90%, showing just how many of them wanted to call time on this long-running dispute.
From the moment I became Transport Secretary, the Rail Minister and I have worked tirelessly to change the tone of the dispute. We sat down with all the rail union leaders and facilitated fair and reasonable pay offers. Now, all Network Rail union members have resolved their disputes, voting for a reasonable pay increase and accepting the need for a modern railway.
But not every rail worker is being given that chance. Despite the Rail Delivery Group putting a similar fair and reasonable offer on the table on behalf of the train operating companies, the RMT has refused to put it to a vote. It refused to suspend last week’s strike action even to consider it. Such a lack of co-operation is disappointing—and what does it achieve? It deprives the RMT’s own members of a democratic vote, denies them the pay rise they deserve and, most importantly, delivers more disruption to the travelling public.
My message to the RMT is simple: call off your strikes, put the RDG offer to a vote and give all your members a say because it is clear from the vote today—the “overwhelming” vote, in the RMT’s own words—that its members understand that it is time to accept a deal that works, not only for their interests, but for passengers.
Let me turn to the steps we are taking to help passengers and fix the issues on the west coast main line. Members will know that rest-day working, or overtime, is a common way for operators to run a normal timetable. However, last July, drivers for Avanti West Coast, who overwhelmingly belong to the ASLEF union, simultaneously and with no warning stopped volunteering to work overtime. Without enough drivers, Avanti had little choice but to run a much-reduced timetable, with fewer trains per hour from London to destinations in the midlands and the north. Passengers, businesses and communities along vital routes up and down the west coast main line rightly felt let down, facing cancelled services, overcrowded trains and poor customer information. Put simply, it has not been good enough.
While the removal of rest-day working was the main contributing factor, my hon. Friend the Rail Minister and I repeatedly made it clear to Avanti’s owning groups, Trenitalia and First Group, that their performance needed to improve, too, because we should always hold train operators to account for matters within their control. That accountability should come with the chance to put things right. That is why my predecessor, my right hon. Friend Anne-Marie Trevelyan, extended Avanti’s contract by six months in October. She rightly set a clear expectation that performance had to improve—no ifs and no buts.
I am pleased to say that not only was Avanti’s recovery plan welcomed by the Office of Rail and Road, but it has led to improvements on the network, with weekday services rising from 180 to 264 trains per day, the highest level in over two years, and cancellation rates falling from around 25% to an average of 4.2% in early March, the lowest level in 12 months. Nearly 90% of Avanti’s trains now arrive within 15 minutes of their scheduled time, over 100 additional drivers have been recruited, reducing reliance on union-controlled overtime working, and it is very pleasing to see Avanti’s new discounted ticketing scheme benefiting passengers on certain routes.
As you would expect me to say, Mr Speaker, there is much more still to do to ensure that Avanti restores services to the level we expect and to earn back the trust that passengers have lost, but we should welcome those improvements and recognise the hard work undertaken to get to this point. The Rail Minister in particular has overseen weekly meetings on Avanti for months and kept hon. Members from both sides of the House regularly informed. He deserves credit, along with Avanti, for that turnaround.
October’s extension was not popular, least of all in parts of this House, but it was the right decision and Avanti is turning a corner. Its recovery so far has given me sufficient confidence to confirm that today we will extend its contract by a further six months, running until
I realise some hon. Members will also want to hear about TransPennine Express. I will update the House separately about TransPennine Express ahead of the contract expiring at the end of May, but let me be clear: its current service levels are, frankly, unacceptable and we will hold it to account on its recovery plan. We have made it clear that, unless passengers see significant improvements, like we have on Avanti, all options regarding that contract remain on the table.
I spoke earlier about holding operators to account, but if we stand here and rightly criticise poor operator performance, we should also recognise that across the industry train operating companies have few levers to change it. Avanti, like others, relies on driver good will to run a reliable seven-day-a-week railway. Like others, it is at the mercy of infrastructure issues out of its control. In fact, seven separate infrastructure issues affected Avanti’s performance in the first week of March alone.
Outdated working practices and track resilience are why predictable calls for nationalisation wildly miss the point. Any operator would face those constraints and struggle to run a reliable service. Ideological debates about ownership are therefore a distraction, like wanting to paint your car a new colour when what it needs is a new engine. Only fundamental reform will fix rail’s systemic issues, which is what the Government are delivering, bringing track and train together under the remit of Great British Railways, taking a whole system approach to cost, revenue and efficiency, and freeing up the private sector to innovate and prioritise passengers. Having set out my vision for rail last month, very soon, I will announce the location of the headquarters of Great British Railways, another clear sign of the momentum we are building on reform.
We are getting on with the job of delivering a better railway. It is why we are finally seeing improvements along the west coast main line, as we continue to hold Avanti to account. It is why we are making progress on rail reform. It is why we will always defend the travelling public from unnecessary strike action. And it is why we will always play our part in resolving disputes in a way that is fair to rail workers, the travelling public and the taxpayer. Unlike others, I am not interested in pointless ideological debates about privatisation and nationalisation. The Government are focused on gripping the long-standing issues facing the industry for the benefit of its customers—freight customers and passengers—taking the tough but responsible decisions in the national interest, and building the growing, financially sustainable and modern railway Britain deserves. I commend this statement to the House.
I call the shadow Secretary of State.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. What a relief it is to see him in his place. Since he announced huge changes on HS2, affecting billions of pounds of investment and jobs, costs to the taxpayer and particularly affecting the north of England, this is the first we have seen or heard from him. You can call the search party off, Mr Speaker.
I welcome the deal on Network Rail, but it is overdue. After 10 months in which the Government refused to negotiate and, according to the chief executive of Network Rail, engaged in “noisy political rhetoric” that had been “counterproductive” to negotiations, a compromise has finally been made. However, passengers across the midlands, the north and Scotland, Members from both sides of the House, and possibly you, Mr Speaker, will be looking on in disbelief today as millions more in taxpayer cash is handed to an operator that is so demonstrably failing passengers. For the Secretary of State to stand at the Dispatch Box and hail a turnaround in the service demonstrates how staggeringly out of touch he is with the lived reality of people in this country.
The figures speak for themselves. Over the past six months, under the Secretary of State’s intensive improvement plan, Avanti West Coast has broken several records—records for delays and cancellations: the highest ever number of trains more than 15 minutes late and the highest single month of cancellations since records began. In one month, almost a quarter of services were badly delayed. That is higher than during the chaos in August and during the height of the pandemic.
That is not all. Under the Secretary of State’s so-called improvement plan, the number of trains on time actually fell to just one third. If that is what success looks like to the Government, is it any wonder that people question whether anything in this country works any more? They look on in disbelief as the answer to this prolonged failure is always millions more in taxpayers’ cash.
This issue matters because across the north, services remain in chaos. Today alone, more than 35 services have been cancelled on TransPennine Express. This has been an issue for not months but years. Six years ago, TransPennine Express had exactly the same issues that it faces today. Then, as now, it blamed staff shortages and the unions. It said then that it would recruit drivers and improve resilience. Then, as now, the Government shrugged their shoulders and let it off the hook as performance plummeted. The Secretary of State dismisses as pointless debates about the future of railways—little wonder, when the answer to the enormous challenges facing the railways is always more of the status quo.
The Conservatives promised competition that would serve passengers and lower fares; instead, as is happening today, contracts are awarded without the faintest hint of competition while fares rise again and again, and passengers suffer. Their answer to it all is more of the same: the same failing operators; the same waste and fragmentation; the same broken system. Labour will end the fractured, fragmented system holding our railways back and put passengers back at the heart of our rail network, prioritising long-term decision making. But the message that today’s decision sends could not be clearer. Under the Conservatives, our broken railways are here to stay. Under the Conservatives, passengers will always come last.
The hon. Lady must have been listening to a completely different statement; what she just said bears very little relationship to either facts or the things I set out. Let me take her points in turn. I am pleased that she welcomed the acceptance by RMT members of the deal on Network Rail, and that—she obviously did not say this—she recognises that my approach since I became Transport Secretary has clearly been the right one, having helped lead to the situation we are in today. I did not expect her to pay me any credit for that, but I note that she welcomed the result.
The hon. Lady said that the Avanti figures speak for themselves, and they absolutely do. Weekday services have risen in the new timetable since December to 264 trains a day. The cancellation rate that she talked about was last year; the most recent rate is down to 4.2%, the lowest level in 12 months. That is a clear improvement. I have said that it needs to be sustained, which is why Avanti has an extension only until October. Some 90% of its trains now arrive within 15 minutes of their scheduled time, which is not good enough—it is in the pack with the other train operating companies, but at the bottom of the pack. I have been clear that Avanti needs to deliver improvement in the next six-month period. But the figures do speak for themselves: they demonstrate an operator that is turning things around but still has more to do, which was exactly what I said in my statement.
I was clear that TPE’s current service levels are unacceptable and that no options were off the table. I am interested in the hon. Lady’s focus on guarding taxpayers’ money. If I have added this up correctly, she and her Front-Bench colleagues have made unfunded promises of £62 billion of rail spending with no demonstrable means to pay for them. I am afraid that she will have excuse me for finding her professed concern for the taxpayer a little incredible.
Finally, I was surprised that the hon. Lady does not seem to have noticed that far from talking about the status quo, last month I set out in detail a clear set of proposals for reform to bring track and train together in Great British Railways, which I reiterated in my statement. That is what we will continue doing: not having an ideological debate about who owns the railways but talking about delivering better services for passengers. That will remain our relentless focus.
I call the Chair of the Transport Committee.
May I start by welcoming the resolution of the industrial dispute? I congratulate my right hon. Friend and the Rail Minister on their constructive work to bring that about.
In his statement, my right hon. Friend rightly pointed out that there are many reasons behind train cancellations and delays, including infrastructure works and failures, industrial action and the weather, as well as those that are the responsibility of the train operating companies. Would it not help scrutiny and accountability of those operators—not just Avanti and TransPennine Express, but all operators—to have available a clear breakdown of the reasons behind poor performance, so that we can hold to account those who are responsible for which bits of the delays?
I would say two things about that. I will look carefully at whether there is more we can do to show the public clearly and transparently the reasons for delays, so that they can understand their cause. To some extent, I do not think that it is that important to passengers, because they do not really care whether the train operating company or Network Rail has caused the problem—they want it to be fixed. My hon. Friend makes the case for reform. It is exactly why we need to bring together the guiding mind on track and train operators—to join up the system, make better decisions for passengers and, ultimately, deliver a better service, which is what passengers are interested in.
I call the Scottish National party spokesperson.
While the Secretary of State was finishing writing his statement before coming to the House, Avanti was doing what it does best—causing more chaos to the west coast. I was glad that I got the London North Eastern Railway down, rather than Avanti. Avanti was far and away the worst-performing company for cancellations in period 11 and the second worst in period 12, according to Office of Rail and Road tables. It was beaten in period 12 only by TransPennine Express. Coincidentally, both franchises involve FirstGroup. By contrast, ScotRail is by far the best performing major operator for cancellation percentages, and it runs eight times as many trains as Avanti.
Since the much heralded Government intervention, ORR data for periods 8 to 11 shows that the number of trains arriving on time is lower, and hovers around 32% to 35%. The Secretary of State talks about facts, but the fact is that still only a third of trains are arriving on time. Does he really think that merits coming to the Despatch Box and bragging about a turnaround? Even on Avanti’s 15-minute threshold for arrival, performance has been consistently lower than in earlier years. In period 10, a quarter of trains arrived outside that 15-minute window. Period 11 was only marginally better. Yet again, ScotRail significantly outperforms it. LNER has had its own issues, but it still outperforms Avanti by some distance. There is no shareholder dividend system for ScotRail or LNER. Despite the Secretary of State saying that there is ideological battle on this issue, why are the Government still so opposed to nationalising rail companies and giving them public sector ownership?
The Secretary of State mentioned discounted ticketing, yet no one north of Preston benefits from that, so passengers in Scotland are paying full whack for services that barely exist to cross-subsidise tickets for trains that stop 200 miles away. Scottish commuters have seen plans to shelve the Golborne link for HS2, with no replacement identified, and further delays to the Euston link. Even when HS2 comes into being, our trains will be slower on the west coast main line than Avanti’s are at present. Despite the rhetoric about rhetoric, is it not the case that this Government just do not care?
Let me deal with those questions in order. First, it important to focus on the facts. To take today’s Avanti service, 95.5% of services were running within 15 minutes of their planned time. There was a service issue today, which I know at least one hon. Member was affected by. There was a Network Rail points failure between Carstairs and Carlisle, which resulted in the delay and part-cancellation of two services, including the 0939 from Lancaster, which started instead from Preston and arrived three minutes late at Euston. It is interesting that the issue was caused by the bit of the industry that is, of course, owned by the taxpayer, so that does not demonstrate the hon. Gentleman’s case for nationalisation.
Secondly, on timekeeping, I said in my statement that Avanti’s punctuality was now within the pack of the train operating companies, but that it was at the bottom of the pack and there was more work still to do. I was very clear that Avanti has improved its performance but it is not where it needs to be, which is why I have sufficient confidence only to extend the contract until October. Both I and the Rail Minister have been clear that Avanti needs to continue to deliver improved performance.
On LNER, on the east coast, in my view one of the reasons why good performance is delivered on that route is that there are open-access operators providing competition and choice to passengers. It is important for us to bear that in mind when we think about the future shape of the rail service.
On the hon. Gentleman’s points about HS2, because I have to consider the interests of the taxpayer and the fact that inflation is significantly high at the moment, I had to make difficult decisions. The choice I made was to continue delivering phase 1, in order to ensure we deliver it as promised; to have a short delay to phase 2a, to continue to deliver phase 2b on track; and to look again at delivering a station at Euston, within the budget that has been set. I think those were the right decisions to deliver improved infrastructure, to benefit the country over decades to come.
I warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, the Rail Minister and the leadership team of Network Rail on bringing this prolonged period of industrial action to a close. Does my right hon. Friend agree that when an offer is put to members of the RMT and employees, it must be clear that they indeed want it and accept it? Does he agree that it is right that the RMT should now put the offer to the train operators to its members as well?
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. The offers that have been made by both Network Rail and the train operating companies—broadly the same value of offers—are fair and reasonable, balancing the interests of the workers on the railways, the passengers and the taxpayer. It is important that the staff themselves get to make a judgment about whether they think those offers are fair, and I urge the RMT to put the offer to the train operating companies to its members, and to let the members decide. Surely that is the right thing for it to do.
It seems that an assessment has been made by the Secretary of State that actually the service is just a little less rubbish. Is that really a just case for extending the contract? My constituents are flabbergasted.
I was very frank with the House that the service last summer and autumn was completely unacceptable. Avanti brought in a new timetable in December. For the first month, we did not really see any improvement because there was sustained industrial action on the railways. Since then, it has delivered improved performance. Is it good enough? No, it is not—I have made that clear—but I believe that it has demonstrated that it has turned things around enough to justify giving it the chance of a further six months to show that it can do the job. We will see whether it does that job in the next six months, but it has demonstrated that it can turn things around.
As the Secretary of State suggests, things have started to improve on Avanti West Coast, including through Stoke-on-Trent, but we need to see further improvements, particularly when it comes to services and delays. But that is not just down to the operators: as the Office of Rail and Road suggests, every single Network Rail region has seen more delays attributed to Network Rail than in the previous period. Does the Secretary of State agree that we must focus on track as well as train if we are to get the improvements we need?
I very much agree. The Rail Minister has met Network Rail to raise the specific issues that my hon. Friend raises and others, but let me say two other things. First, now that we have resolved all the industrial disputes on Network Rail, the company’s management can now focus 100% on delivering improved performance rather than on dealing with an industrial dispute. Secondly, it has ambitious plans for reform to deliver improved maintenance of the network in a safer way for the people who work on it and at a lower cost for the taxpayer, all of which will deliver better services for my hon. Friend’s constituents.
I assume from the Secretary of State’s earlier comments that he is aware of my Twitter thread about my cancelled and then delayed journey to London this morning. It will have come as no surprise to my constituents, whose lives have been disrupted by this train company for far, far too long. Today’s announcement of the contract extension has been met with anger by my constituents. I have to say that Avanti really did take the biscuit today when it even managed to serve mouldy food in its on-board shop. My constituents would like to know what on earth Avanti has to do, other than be the worst-performing rail operator in the country, to actually lose the contract.
I would say a couple of things. First, I did see the hon. Lady’s tweet, which is why I set out clearly the position with respect to the train service that was disrupted this morning: there were two services that were part-cancelled, and the rest of Avanti’s services this morning were running perfectly all right. The issue with the cancellation was to do not with Avanti, but with Network Rail’s performance.
On the hon. Lady’s second point, I come back to what I said earlier. I am not pretending that Avanti has fixed its performance or that it is up there with the best-performing train operating companies—far from it—but the question I faced was whether it had done enough to demonstrate that it was capable of turning its services around. I have set that out, and I will not try the patience of the House by saying it all again. It has made a significant improvement—enough to justify an extension until October. Is there more to do? There absolutely is. The hon. Lady is right to make that strong argument on behalf of her constituents, and we will hold the company to account.
My right hon. Friend is the antithesis of the Fat Controller, but may I thank him very much indeed for all his efforts in securing a satisfactory agreement with the unions recently? Owing to the complete shambles that at times we see from Avanti, which purportedly seeks to run a rail service, there will be concern among my constituents. Has my right hon. Friend reflected on the question of over-promising in bidding for franchises? Will his judgment of Avanti’s success or otherwise over the next six months be conditional on improvements such as the ability to book tickets further in advance than is currently possible?
My hon. Friend is quite right, and I will take his initial comment in the spirit that I am sure he intended. We will judge Avanti in the same way that it is judged on the fee that it earns: on its operational performance; on the experience of its customers; on its financial management; on how it works with Network Rail, other train operating companies and other stakeholders; and on the fundamental performance that it delivers in its timekeeping, its punctuality and its level of cancellations. It will also be judged on its customer service experience. It is quite right to say that it has had some issues with the ability to book tickets ahead, and over the past week it has had some issues with its website. It knows that it needs to fix those issues and that we will hold it to account, as will my hon. Friend.
I just cannot reconcile the Secretary of State’s statement that services have improved with my own experience as a passenger over the past month, from today’s minor inconvenience of no food being available on the long journey from Bangor to London, to the delays in last week’s trains, to what happened the previous week when the trains did not turn up at all—and that is on top of the withdrawal of direct services on the vital Irish route through my constituency and Ynys Môn to Holyhead. How can the Secretary of State have any confidence that in six months’ time the service from Avanti will be any better?
There has been an improvement over time. Last year, I made it very clear that services were completely unacceptable. Avanti introduced a new timetable in December, but it was impossible to see any improvement during the first month of its operation owing to sustained industrial action affecting either the train operating companies or Network Rail. Avanti has since improved its performance, but I accept that it is not all the way there, which is why I extended its contract by only six months. Those at Avanti are well aware that they are still on probation and have more work to do, and I shall expect to see sustained improvement on punctuality and timekeeping, on cancellations, and on the way they work with their customers. We will be holding them to account, and my hon. Friend the Rail Minister will continue his regular meetings with them to ensure that their performance continues to improve, for the benefit of the hon. Gentleman and his constituents.
I am pleased to see that the cancellation rate has fallen to 4.2%, but one swallow does not a summer make, and this service has been letting my constituents and me down for a prolonged period of time. What will the Secretary of State be looking for during those six months, and will he be able to publish the precise metrics of what he would consider to be a success in order to allow the contract to be refreshed in future?
I do not disagree with my hon. Friend. I said in my statement that performance had been poor, but improvements had been made. This will be a question of punctuality and timekeeping—of whether Avanti hits the required on-time performance—the number of cancellations, and how easy its customers find it to deal with the service. I will also have to judge it on the basis of what is going on in the industry. It would be much easier to judge the performance of train operating companies if their staff were not going on strike, which I why I think that if the RMT puts its deal to the members, we can resolve the industrial dispute. The issue of holding management to account would then be very clear, because it would be the only thing left on which we can focus. It is very difficult to hold management to account when the workers keep going on strike and disrupting the service for passengers.
The Secretary of State said that the contract would be extended with the “expectation” that Avanti would win back the confidence of customers. I have to say that my constituents in south Manchester are a long way from having confidence in Avanti. I speak regularly to people who are driving rather than taking the train because they know it is the only way in which they can guarantee that they will arrive at their destination on time. Leaving aside the cancellation statistics, how will the Secretary of State measure the confidence of customers in Avanti’s currently shambolic service?
I made it very clear that Avanti would have to earn back the trust of its customers, which, for rather obvious reasons, it has lost over the past year. The only way to win back the trust of customers in a service business such as passenger rail is to deliver sustained performance improvement over time. During the most recent period for which we have statistics, the cancellation figures clearly improved, but Avanti still has more work to do. It needs to sustain that performance, making the trains more punctual and reducing the number of cancellations for a sustained period. If it does that, it will win back the trust of its customers. If it does not, it will not, and we will make decisions accordingly.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement. The arrangements that will hopefully end the strikes are very good news, and the RMT should certainly ballot its members. As for Avanti West Coast, my constituents who use Lichfield Trent Valley station will be pleased to see what has been done, but we do need more improvement. He has used the phrase “Great British Railways” a number of times. I am really looking forward to any announcement that its headquarters might be in Derby.
On that last point, I promised to update the House before Easter on where GBR’s HQ will be, and I will stick to that promise. On my hon. Friend’s other points, I reiterate what she says: this is about delivering reform and bringing track and train together in GBR, which will lead to improved performance across the rail network.
The Secretary of State seems to be celebrating a 4% cancellation rate on Avanti. May I invite him to look at the cancellation rate on Thameslink trains from St Albans City station, which is 8%? In fact, only 47% of our trains run on time, and our tickets are almost a third more expensive per mile than the average London commuter route, which means that St Albans is now rated the worst commuter station into London. Will the Secretary of State look at those cancellation rates and tell me when the prices affecting my constituency will go down and when reliability will go up?
We look at the performance of the rail network overall but, as the Chairman of the Transport Committee said, we need more transparent information. The most important thing is that lots of the issues to do with the performance of train operating companies are partly to do with infrastructure. Passengers do not care what causes the problems, which is why GBR, with its new regional structure, will ensure that we deliver a more joined-up system and better overall performance, which is what is ultimately important for the hon. Lady’s constituents.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. It is very positive that RMT employees at Network Rail are ready to accept the offer, and therefore disappointing that those who work for the train operating companies have not been given a chance to express their views. On the specific points in the negotiations, does he agree that reforms to working practices in order to modernise and bring greater efficiency to the railways are critical to their future? Can he confirm that this is central to the negotiations taking place?
I welcome my hon. Friend’s support for reform in general, but this is also part of the deals that have been accepted. On Network Rail, the modernising maintenance programme is central to delivering the savings that will help to fund the pay offer that has been made. We need to see similar reforms in the train operating companies in order to deliver a reliable, seven-days-a-week rail service that is better for passengers, particularly given that we have seen a bounce-back in leisure travel at the expense of commuter rail, which I do not think is going to come back post-pandemic. We need to see a more flexible railway delivering for passengers.
Last year we saw £4.1 million in bonus payouts despite the worst performance figures for all rail operators. Today we see contract extensions despite the Office of Rail Regulation showing that 17% of trains had been cancelled since December. Does the Minister think that rewarding failure on this scale is justifiable to the UK taxpayer or, indeed, to passengers?
I do not think the hon. Lady listened very carefully to what I said. I did not say that Avanti had fixed all the problems, but it has delivered an improvement in performance compared with last year. As I have said, since it introduced its timetable in December, we did not see much improvement in the first month because either train operating company staff or Network Rail staff were on strike, but since then it has delivered an improved performance. Has it improved as far as it needs to go? No, it has not—I was clear about that. We need to see that performance sustained over the coming months, and that is how we will judge its performance when we make a decision towards the end of this next six-month period.
The vast majority of my constituents who use rail rely on Chiltern Railways, and passengers have faced massive and dangerous overcrowding on services to stations such as Haddenham and Thame Parkway and Princes Risborough at commuter times and at weekends. That is due in no small part to customers frustrated with Avanti who would ordinarily choose Avanti to go from Birmingham to London being displaced on to the Chiltern line instead. What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the impact of Avanti’s failures on overcrowding on other railways, and what can he do to alleviate that pressure?
I have not made a specific assessment of the extent to which Avanti’s poor performance, particularly last year, has led to the effects that my hon. Friend describes, but he has set them out clearly. If the improved performance that has taken place over the past few months is sustained, it will enable a reverse of that effect, which will deliver better services not only for those who use Avanti but for his constituents who use Chiltern’s services, for whom the level of overcrowding will reduce.
Frankly, we could do with a Secretary of State who has to use Avanti West Coast twice a week, as many of us in this Chamber do. I must be the unluckiest rail user in this place, because I always seem to be on a train that he says is one of the 10% that triggers delay repay. Avanti has failed, and it has failed spectacularly. Even by the Government’s own admission, Avanti has failed to the point that my constituents genuinely do not understand why it was allowed to have £4 million of bonuses and £12 million of dividends. Can he explain to my constituents why we have a rail service that allows and rewards abject failure?
I cannot help that the location of my Forest of Dean constituency means I use Great Western Railway rather than Avanti. The hon. Gentleman can criticise me, but that is the geographical fact of the case.
I used Avanti when, for example, I went to Manchester to meet the northern Mayors to discuss Avanti’s performance when it needed improving. Since I met them, Avanti’s performance has significantly improved.
On bonuses, the hon. Gentleman is talking about a period that predates last year’s extremely poor performance. We have not yet seen the published figures to assess the period since last year.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman is right that we need to see sustained performance improvement. As I said in my statement, we will make sure Avanti has done that when we come to make a decision about the period after October.
I am concerned that the Government have extended the Avanti West Coast contract to
The majority of pre-covid services to the north Wales coast have been restored, and there are five trains a day in each direction between London and Holyhead. Avanti has recruited more than 100 new drivers, which needs to be sustained for it to continue delivering a reliable timetable without depending on rest-day working. We will work closely with Avanti to make sure that performance continues over the coming months.
During the period of Avanti’s improvement plan, the operator had the highest proportion on record of trains running more than 15 minutes late. By the Secretary of State’s own admission, Avanti has also lost the confidence of its customers. Why are the Government rewarding this gross incompetence with yet another six-month extension?
I was clear in my statement about the facts on Avanti’s punctuality. Although it is now back in the pack with the other train operating companies, it is at the bottom of the pack and still has more work to do. The question for me, as I said in my statement and as I said in answer to the shadow Secretary of State, Louise Haigh, is about whether Avanti’s performance has improved enough to demonstrate it can continue improving. The statistics I read out show that Avanti is clearly running a much better service, with 40% more trains, and has significantly reduced cancellations in the past few months, but I was very frank that its performance is not good enough today. Avanti needs to continue delivering service improvements for us to give it a further contract. That is what we will judge Avanti by as we run forward to October.
I must confess that I was disappointed to hear from my right hon. Friend that he has decided to extend Avanti’s contract by six months. Avanti has been letting down the people of north Wales for far too long and I had hoped that he would be coming here to say that he was terminating that contract. It would appear that the progress Avanti has made is that it is no longer delivering a truly deplorable service and instead is delivering something rather less than a mediocre one. Will he confirm that he will expect Avanti to be delivering an excellent service by October, failing which it will be stripped of its franchise?
I think my right hon. Friend is being a little unfair in not recognising the performance improvements Avanti has made. I completely accept that its performance last summer and autumn was terrible, and I said that, but it has made significant improvements. It needs to continue those improvements, particularly in delivering reduced cancellations, improvements at weekends—its weekday services are better than its weekend ones—and improvements in how it deals with its customers. All those things absolutely need to continue happening for both him, and me, to be satisfied with Avanti.
Today, more than 30 services were cancelled by TransPennine Express. The Minister has outlined his concern about the service, so will he reassure the House that when performance figures are published we will find that TPE will not have received a penny in performance bonuses, given the misery that millions are facing?
The hon. Lady is right about TPE; I made it clear in my statement that its current performance is unacceptable. The rail Minister and I met its senior leadership and made it clear that the current performance was unacceptable. As I said at this Dispatch Box, if there is not considerable improvement, all options are on the table.
Staying with TPE, the Secretary of State will know that I have raised this issue on more occasions than I would wish to do so. The service out of Cleethorpes is supposed to be hourly through to Doncaster, Sheffield and Manchester, but today there was a six-hour gap between 8.20 and 14.20, and 10 days ago there was an eight-hour gap between trains. This is having a terrible effect on business and leisure facilities, and tourism to Cleethorpes, and it has been going on for 16 months, so it is not something new. When he comes to make a decision on TPE, will he please take an extremely robust position?
I know that my hon. Friend has had a particularly difficult time on the route that serves his constituents. I was clear at the Dispatch Box that TPE’s service is not acceptable, to put it mildly, and it needs to improve. The one thing I would say is that it is overly dependent on rest-day working. When I met northern Mayors, who made this point to me clearly, I ensured that a refreshed, more generous offer on rest-day working was made to ASLEF, but again, it did not even put it to its members. That offer would have made a significant difference in the performance delivered to his constituents. I ask ASLEF to look again at the offer that has been made on rest-day working and take it up, so that we can do the most important thing: deliver improved services to passengers, rather than continue an unnecessary dispute.
Avanti’s abysmal performance is not just demoralising its own hard-working staff on stations and on trains, but causing a huge blow to our economy. The Lakes is the second biggest visitor destination in the country, and it is connected with the biggest, here in London, and the impact on the economy is huge and massively damaging. During this six-month probation period we are talking about, Avanti has recorded almost one in five trains cancelled, with almost one in two delayed. What appalling additional reduction in the quality of service must Avanti do to lose the contract? People in Cumbria will be appalled at the apparent low standards.
The hon. Gentleman will have to forgive me if I have this wrong, but I do not think he was here for the whole of my statement, so he may have missed the bit where I set out the improvement that Avanti had delivered. It weekday services have risen from 180 to 264 trains a day, and cancellations were down to 4.2%. I made it clear that Avanti had demonstrated enough improvement to justify the extension until October, but it absolutely has more work to do to deliver for his constituents and others who use the service. That is what the Rail Minister and I will be expecting Avanti to do in the months running up to October.
The ideologically driven actions of the RMT have brought chaos to the wider economy. Rail strikes alone cost the UK hospitality sector £1.5 billion in December—that affects jobs and livelihoods. Will my right hon. Friend reassure me that the Conservative party will always be the champion of the public and their right to get on with their daily lives—even in the face of the RMT’s actions?
That is a very well-aimed question, because it demonstrates that, when we have rail strikes, there is an immediate impact on not just passengers but the wider economy. I reiterate that, with a 90% turnout and a 76% acceptance of the offer, Network Rail’s RMT staff have demonstrated that they thought it was fair and reasonable in all the circumstances. They have accepted it, which seems to me to justify the RMT putting a very similar offer to its members working in the train operating companies. I would urge it to do so, and to do so quickly, so that it can call off next week’s strikes. That probably needs to happen by the middle of this week so that we do not damage the passengers, or the businesses that depend on them, any more than they already have been.
The people of Stockport have to suffer the extremely poor services provided by Avanti and TransPennine Express. It is extremely frustrating that the Government have decided to extend Avanti’s contract by six months. The Secretary of State pretends that Avanti was an excellent service provider before last summer, but in 2021-22 it had the most complaints of any operator. Why do new figures prove that the Government sanctioned a £12 million dividend for Avanti shareholders, and will the Secretary of State demand that money back?
I think I am right in saying that the hon. Gentleman is talking about the period before the very poor service last year. However, he will also know that the judgment about whether train operating companies have hit the performance targets they have been given is reached independently, not by me, and I think that is a good safeguard.
On the hon. Gentleman’s general point about Avanti’s and TransPennine’s performance, and whether it is good enough, I was clear that TP’s performance is not good enough at the moment. If TP does not demonstrate improved performance, all options remain on the table.
I congratulate the Secretary of State and the Rail Minister on successfully working their way through the Network Rail strike. They have rightly mentioned winning back the trust of customers, so as they start to consider whether Avanti, TransPennine Express and others have successfully improved their performance, will they also consider that open-access operators—which the Secretary of State mentioned as a shining example of good practice and which have maintained their customers’ affection—may be the answer for both these routes? Why do we not have more of them and fewer monumental, single provider-dominant contracts?
I welcome my hon. Friend’s question. On the point about drivers, almost 100 drivers have been recruited—I said more than 100 earlier, but it is almost 100, and I would like to correct the record at this early opportunity.
My hon. Friend’s point about open-access operators is right. As I said in answer to a previous question, that competition and choice are welcome, but we can only have that when we have sufficient capacity—that is important. I also note that Avanti’s announcement today makes it clear that the new managing director it has brought in to grip its performance and to continue delivering improved performance has been responsible for two of those very successful open-access operators. I think that bodes well for Avanti’s customers.
I have to tell the Secretary of State that the only cancellation my constituents would welcome is the cancellation of the Avanti contract. He mentioned the five services a day between Holyhead and Crewe, but he may not be aware that two of them have been cancelled today. For communities in Chester and north Wales, this ongoing nightmare is affecting lives and economic performance. When will the Secretary of State stop rewarding failure and get a grip on this service?
I think the hon. Lady’s question would be fairer if I had pretended there was not more work to do. Avanti has delivered performance improvement, running 40% more services, reducing the rate of cancellations to 4.2% and running significantly more trains on time, but I was very clear that it needs to do better on punctuality and deliver sustained improvement on cancellations. I know how much cancellations inconvenience passengers—not just those who wanted to catch the cancelled services, but passengers on other services that are then overcrowded. Avanti has work to do, but I think it has done enough so far to justify a six-month extension. We will consider whether it has sustained that performance when we have to make a further decision later this year.
The service my constituents endured from Stoke-on-Trent last year was truly appalling, as my right hon. Friend acknowledged earlier. Does he agree that, although things have been better this year—I can testify myself that there are more services, they are less crowded, and most of them turn up on time—it is still not good enough, and 4.2% is not an acceptable cancellation rate? Will he hold Avanti to account before extending the contract any further?
I welcome my hon. Friend’s words, which paint a balanced picture. He recognises that there has been improvement, and I have talked to colleagues in this House and outside who have recognised that improvement, but there is more to do. Avanti has more to do on driving down cancellations and on punctuality, where it is at least now in the pack with the other train operating companies, but at the bottom of the pack. That is why we have only extended the contract for another six months. Avanti must demonstrate to our satisfaction that it can deliver that improved performance in a sustained way, which is what is important for my hon. Friend and his constituents.
TransPennine’s performance is rubbish. Its cancellation rates are appalling, Members on both sides of the House have lost confidence in it, and it cannot even run the toilets at Hull Paragon station properly. Why do we have to wait until May for a decision on the future of TransPennine?
I think I was very clear in my characterisation of TransPennine’s performance. I was perhaps a little more diplomatic than the right hon. Lady, who was franker in her assessment, but I said that its performance was not acceptable. The contract expires on
It is five years since the newly refurbished London Bridge opened; apart from teething problems at the start, it ran relatively smoothly until the Government-imposed timetable changes came in in December. Since then, we have seen several very dangerous situations occur at London Bridge. At a stakeholder meeting a couple of weeks ago, Southeastern stated that one of the problems is that it has to make £10 million-worth of savings, imposed by the Government. The Secretary of State may not be a portly controller, but he is the controller none the less. Is it not the tinkering of this Government that is leading to a chaotic railway service, whether on Southeastern or Avanti?
The particular set of circumstances the hon. Gentleman talks about requires Network Rail to work closely with Transport for London, as it is doing, to look at those circumstances. I know there have been issues with the timetable on his particular line and I remember a conversation he had with my hon. Friend the Rail Minister at the last set of oral questions, where my hon. Friend was able to supply the House with some positive news. I have listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman says, and I will take that away and look at it to see whether there is more we need to do in the short term to improve performance for his constituents.
Many of my constituents are unfortunate enough to have to rely on Avanti. They thought the Secretary of State’s predecessor should not have extended the contract last time, let alone this time. I want to look at some of his claims about improved performance, because they do not stand up to scrutiny over any extended period of time. Everybody knows what is going on here, because they have experienced the service for themselves. The average number of cancellations between September 2022 and March 2023 was just as high as over the previous six months, and Avanti had the highest proportion of trains more than 15 minutes late on record. The travelling public know it, we know it, and I suspect he knows it too: Avanti should be stripped of its franchise.
I think we should judge Avanti’s performance fairly. The hon. Gentleman is mashing periods together. Before December, I was quite clear that Avanti absolutely had to deliver an improved timetable—that did not start until December. Of course, as I said in response to previous questions, the first month or so of that was disrupted enormously by industrial action either in the train operating company or in Network Rail, or in both. Since Avanti brought it its new timetable, it has delivered 40% more services. Yes, it has not delivered sustained reductions in cancellations, but it has delivered reductions more recently.
There is no point in looking at the performance last summer and autumn, which I have accepted was terrible. There was a problem to fix, which is why Avanti needed to bring in its new timetable. Since it has done that, it has delivered improvements. Are they good enough? No, which is why I have extended it for a further six months only. Avanti is very clear that it has to deliver sustained performance improvement, and I judged that that was the best way to deliver improved performance for the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and those of other hon. Members.
The performance and service of York-based LNER is the best across the network. That service is under the operator of last resort. By contrast, TransPennine Express, which is operated by FirstGroup, is failing my constituents abysmally. Will the Secretary of State look at bringing TPE under the same public ownership as LNER, and draw on York’s advanced rail and digital rail cluster to make TPE an effective and efficient service?
TPE’s contract expires on
I thank the Secretary of State very much for his statement. For able-bodied people like us, travel can be a problem, but it is even more of a problem for disabled people. Will he outline whether improvements to disabled access will be extended to rural locations, which, although small in nature, are vital and pivotal to connectivity, especially for disabled people, who wish to be—and must be—fully considered and included in this statement and, indeed, in the delivery of services?
The hon. Gentleman will know that, in a previous life, I served as Minister for Disabled People, so I take accessible transport very seriously. That is why one thing that I did when I became Secretary of State was to make all my Ministers clear that, in all their decisions, they had to think about how disabled people could have access to all modes of transport. He will know about the services that we have to improve station accessibility. I will make sure that, as we think about rural services, the Rail Minister thinks about access for all, because that is incredibly important, as the hon. Gentleman says.