Rail Franchise Agreements - Question

– in the House of Lords at 2:45 pm on 4th December 2018.

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Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Liberal Democrat 2:45 pm, 4th December 2018

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what requirements are included in rail franchise agreements for operators to provide information, assistance and support to passengers when trains do not arrive, or terminate before reaching their final destinations.

Photo of Baroness Sugg Baroness Sugg Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

My Lords, franchise arrangements contain obligations for operators to act in the best interests of passengers if there is disruption in service. This includes working with Network Rail and other train operators and using all reasonable endeavours to provide alternative means for passengers to get to their destination. In addition, during franchise bids we ask bidders to demonstrate how they will deliver high standards of information and customer service during such periods, and bidders are evaluated on the quality of their responses.

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I refer to trains to Brierfield, Nelson and Colne, which are at the end of the line on an eight-mile single-track siding. If trains are late, they often turn back at Burnley and turf out all the passengers without assistance, support or alternative transport to Brierfield, Nelson or Colne, where they have tickets to. It happens at all times of the day and night, leaving vulnerable people stranded at a dark unmanned station—children, young girls, old and disabled people, and visitors who do not know where they are. When will the Government get to grips with Arriva Northern rail and bring an end to scandals such as this?

Photo of Baroness Sugg Baroness Sugg Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

My Lords, Northern is working hard to reduce the number of cancellations experienced on the line which the noble Lord mentions; they are currently running at about 4%, which is obviously not good enough. If the last train of the day is cancelled, Northern operates a last train of the day policy, which should ensure that passengers who are travelling to Brierfield, Nelson and Colne are not left stranded. If for any reason that service does not arrive, there is a 24-hour helpline, and service will then be provided. I have been assured that onward transport has been provided in all circumstances, but from what the noble Lord has said, that is not the case and, as I said, that is not good enough. I will be happy to arrange a meeting with the noble Lord and the Northern franchise where we can discuss further how better to make improvements.

Photo of Lord Tunnicliffe Lord Tunnicliffe Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow Minister (Transport)

My Lords, the problems outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, are symptomatic of the structure of the railway. It is the structure that is wrong, and it is the structure that caused the May timetable chaos. Fortunately for us, the Transport Select Committee in the other place reported on that today. At paragraph 63 it concludes:

“The Secretary of State for transport is responsible for the structure of the system that controls and runs our railways. He is at the apex of this system … It is therefore not reasonable for the Secretary of State to absolve himself of all responsibility”.

Does the Minister agree with the committee, and does she further agree that things will not get better until the Secretary of State accepts his responsibility or stands aside for a more proactive and responsible candidate?

Photo of Baroness Sugg Baroness Sugg Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

My Lords, I should make clear that the Secretary of State and the department have accepted responsibility for the role we played in the implementation of the timetables in May. It is clear from the difficulties with the introduction of the timetable over the summer, from problems experienced with some major investment projects and from the collapse of the Virgin Trains East Coast franchise that we need to see significant change, but that, as the noble Lord said, is in the structure of our railways not in our Secretary of State.

Photo of Lord Naseby Lord Naseby Conservative

Is my noble friend aware that, while there have been improvements on Govia Thameslink since the May farce, a new technique is nevertheless being deployed on the Peterborough line? You get half way to Peterborough and the train driver announces that he is not stopping at the next four stations. While I normally like going to Huntingdon, on the whole it is not terribly productive after a late sitting in your Lordships’ House. I therefore ask my noble friend to suggest the simple remedy of having a reserve train at Peterborough with a standby driver so that the timetable can be kept.

Photo of Baroness Sugg Baroness Sugg Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I am not sure that I will be able to deliver that, but I will certainly take my noble friend’s suggestion back to the franchise. Again, we have seen unacceptable levels of service from GTR over the summer. We have today announced firm and proportionate action against GTR, which will contribute £15 million towards tangible improvements for passengers and will make no profit from its franchise this financial year. Looking ahead, we have also capped the amount of profit the operator is able to make for the remainder of its franchise. I am well aware that the service is not as it should be, and we are working hard to address that.

Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

My Lords, I am grateful for my noble friend’s Question. I will expand it slightly to look at the particular problem that disabled passengers face in these circumstances. One deaf passenger recently got on to a train and, following a platform change, an audio announcement was made of the need to move to another platform, but no conductor or other staff member walked down the train and the person sat there for some time before realising there had been a change. Secondly, a disabled passenger was left stuck on a train that was terminated before its expected station, unable to get off with the other passengers who were taken off the train. What are the Government doing to ensure that train operating companies look after disabled passengers of all types, whether their disabilities are visible or not?

Photo of Baroness Sugg Baroness Sugg Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

My Lords, all train operators have a disabled people’s protection policy in place, and they must comply with that as a condition of their licence. The ORR is currently consulting on how we can strengthen that document to set out what train operators are required to do. It looks at key areas such as reliability of the assistance service, staff training, the notice period recommended before booking assistance and passenger information for seeking redress. The ORR has powers to take enforcement action where there are breaches of licence conditions. It has not yet used these powers, but we would absolutely encourage it to do so where there are breaches.

Photo of Lord Laming Lord Laming Chair, Accommodation Steering Group Committee, Chair, Services Committee

My Lords, is the Minister aware that some rail companies appear to have removed the word “cancellation” from their vocabulary? You arrive at the station for a train, look at the board and discover that the train is no more; it never existed; it is not there. Could she help these companies to recover the full use of their vocabulary?

Photo of Baroness Sugg Baroness Sugg Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

My Lords, train cancellation has certainly not been removed from my vocabulary. We need to make sure that information is properly provided to customers. We are working closely with GTR and all the train operating companies on this. We need, of course, to ensure that passengers are aware which services they will be able to travel on, and that is something we are working to improve.

Photo of Baroness Corston Baroness Corston Labour

My Lords, I hope the Minister does not think that everything is fine on those train operating companies not mentioned here today. On Great Western Railway, for example, the service from Cheltenham Spa to Paddington is frequently cancelled on a Sunday night. All the trains are suddenly and summarily cancelled, so people who work in London all week and expect to travel back there on a Sunday night find they are unable to do so. GWR does this repeatedly. Will she intervene?

Photo of Baroness Sugg Baroness Sugg Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

My Lords, obviously we should be looking not to cancel any train services, and those services referred to by the noble Baroness are particularly important for people who need to travel to London for work. I will take this issue back and follow it up with the franchise-holders to see if there is anything we can do.