Southern Rail: Service Cuts - Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:29 pm on 6th July 2016.

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Photo of Lord Dholakia Lord Dholakia Liberal Democrat 3:29 pm, 6th July 2016

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the decision to cut the number of services provided by Southern Rail.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport), Parliamentary Under-Secretary

My Lords, GTR is introducing an amended timetable so that passengers have much-needed certainty about getting to work and home reliably. Some 85% of services will run and more staff will be available during peak hours. This will be in place until train crew availability returns to normal. This is now a big test for RMT as to whether it continues this unjustified dispute that has been inflicting chaos on passengers’ lives or works with the operator to urgently resolve this matter.

Photo of Lord Dholakia Lord Dholakia Liberal Democrat

My Lords, today’s headline, “Meltdown”, adequately sums up the daily chaos suffered by people on Southern Rail. Fewer, shorter, cancelled or no trains; passengers turfed out of trains; and a complete lack of information—such has been the daily reality in the lives of many people for months, and there is no end in sight. Does the Minister agree that the most ridiculous suggestion to emerge has been to cut up to 350 trains a day? Is it not time for him to call Thameslink management to his office and tell them that they are not fit and proper persons to run our railways and that the only thing that should be slashed is their franchise?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport), Parliamentary Under-Secretary

First, I agree with the noble Lord that the situation at Southern is totally unacceptable. The point was well made by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. In addition to that, this new timetable seeks to provide the reliability which is acutely needed right now. I accept that there is a reduction in services, but this is what the provider is saying it can provide reliably. On the issue of withdrawing such a franchise, let us not forget that part of that franchise concerns the modernisation of rolling stock as part of the modernisation of that whole network. Information for passengers on this new timetable is being provided through websites and through other sources of information on platforms and trains.

Photo of Lord Rosser Lord Rosser Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

Is Southern Rail in breach of any of the terms of its Government-approved franchise agreement, either through its current level of performance or through its decision to reduce the number of services that tit will operate? Have the Government given any assurances or hints to Southern Rail that the current unsatisfactory level of performance and the forthcoming reduction in the number of train services it runs will not result in any action being taken against the company? If so, why were such assurances or hints given?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport), Parliamentary Under-Secretary

Let me assure the noble Lord and your Lordships’ House that the Government are in regular contact with the company to ensure that the current situation can be remedied, but I call upon both the company and the unions to resolve their dispute. The noble Lord asked specifically about the franchise agreement. Under the franchise agreement, where GTR can provide evidence that cancellations are due to official or unofficial industrial action it can claim force majeure, which it has done on this occasion.

Photo of Lord Mawhinney Lord Mawhinney Conservative

My Lords, reverting to my noble friend’s original Answer, what makes him believe that normal service will soon be renewed?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport), Parliamentary Under-Secretary

I say to my noble friend that I did not say that, and nor did I suggest it. I do not believe that the current situation is acceptable; indeed, the reduction of services is also unacceptable. The first issue is to provide at least some sense of reliability to those using this network as to when trains will be running. My noble friend will also be aware that services have also been suffering from a high degree of sickness, which has resulted in a reduction in service performance since May from 83% to 63%.

Photo of Baroness Whitaker Baroness Whitaker Labour

My Lords, I am a passenger on Southern Rail. Is the Minister aware that in the whole of my very long life I have never had such dreadful service? How long is he going to give this company before the franchise is reviewed?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport), Parliamentary Under-Secretary

My Lords, as I have already said on the franchise, yes, the noble Baroness is quite right to say that the service is unacceptable. I agree with her about the current service levels. I know many people who use that service, I assure the noble Baroness, and find it unacceptable; we all know it is. This is about ensuring, first and foremost, that the operator gets together with the union to address the current dispute. The dispute can be resolved, but it requires both parties to get back to the table and negotiate a resolution.

Photo of Baroness Randerson Baroness Randerson Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Transport)

My Lords, the beleaguered passengers are being used as hostages in the power struggle between Govia and the RMT. Whatever the Government say at this point, the situation developed because Govia tried to run the franchise with an inadequate number of trained drivers from the start. Do the Government accept that they need to take a much more rigorous approach to franchise arrangements at an earlier stage in order to prevent crises such as this occurring in future?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport), Parliamentary Under-Secretary

With any experience, everyone is there to learn, and Governments are no exception, but on the issue of driver shortages, I assure the noble Baroness that GTR is taking action. She may be aware that it has recruited 500 extra drivers, of whom 211 are already on the network—but clearly, as she says, more needs to be done.