We will now move on to the next section of our investigation and take evidence from Janet Cooke, chief executive of London TravelWatch, and David Sidebottom, the passenger team director at Transport Focus. You have 45 minutes to answer questions, and it will be a question and answer session throughout. Before we start, I will just ask you to give a quick résumé of your situation and why you are here—briefly, if you can, for the members of the Committee, so that we can get on with the job of asking the questions. Ms Cooke, would you like to start?
Janet Cooke: I am Janet Cooke, and I am the chief executive of London TravelWatch. We were set up, in our current guise, under the Greater London Authority Act 1999. We are funded and supported by the London Assembly. We are run by a board who are appointed by the London Assembly following a public advertisement.
We are small organisation; our budget is just over £1 million, most of which is spent on staff. We have fewer than 16 full-time equivalent staff. Our role is to represent all users of Transport for London Services. That includes the tube, the underground and the buses, but also dial-a-ride and cyclists on the red route. Everything that TfL does, we represent the users of. We also represent all passengers using rail services in the London railway area, which is wider than the GLA area. The best way of putting it is that it extends to take in access to all of London’s five major airports, so we go down to Gatwick airport. We have a fully multi-modal role in representing those passengers and transport users.
We are an appeals body, so if people are dissatisfied with how a complaint they have made to an operator has been handled, they can come to us and appeal. That is for all the modes that we represent. We do some primary research, but with a very limited budget—we do very little primary research. We are, however, experts at looking at other people’s research and recycling it. We are also a statutory consultation body, so if you want to change the bus service or whatever, you have to consult with us.
Our entire remit is to act as the voice of transport users. There are two values that are particularly important to us. The first is independence. It is vital for our work that we are not only independent, but seen to be independent. Although we are funded through the political process, we are accountable to the London Assembly but our board make their own decisions based purely on the passenger interest. We are independent of operators and independent of the transport union. I have been chief executive since 2008.
David Sidebottom: Transport Focus is a non-departmental public body with statutory remits under the Railways Acts to represent Britain’s rail passengers, and under the Local Transport Acts to promote the interests of bus, coach and tram passengers in England outside of London. More recently, we were provided with powers in April to represent users of the strategic road network in England. Similar to Janet’s description, we take on individual representations from unhappy rail passengers and try to get a better outcome for them. In addition, we have a budget that we use to spend extensively on research to give us the evidence base to provide useful information to Government, train operators, bus operators and other stakeholder organisations.
Recognising what you have both said about independence and the role of an NDPB, have you, on behalf of those you represent, made representations to the Government arguing for the measures that are set out in the Bill?
And have any of the individuals or groups that you represent commented on any parts of the Bill, to your knowledge, in any great detail?
There was a report from the GLA in 2011 and an independent review, both of which said that there needs to be an emphasis on the employer creating the conditions for dialogue to improve industrial relations, particularly in the transport sector, and thereby reducing disruption to service users. Are you able to comment on any progress in implementing those recommendations from the 2011 report from the GLA?
Janet Cooke: No. From time to time we try to follow up recommendations that the GLA or the Transport Committee in particular have made, if we have the resources to and if we think it is a particular issue that we should follow up. In terms of industrial action, however, we would not, although we would agree that there should be as much dialogue as possible so that it does not impact on passengers.
David Sidebottom: I cannot comment on the GLA, as our role is specifically outside of London. I will quickly mention one particular view that we have, which is about the impact on passengers of threats of action and the impacts of action directly. In the last five or six years, we have seen the emergence of rest-day working patterns and how short-notice voluntary action—that is probably the best way of describing it—can create uncertainty among passengers.
I assume you both also deal with complaints about passenger fares, increases and issues around ticketing and so on. Would you be able to comment on the role that trade unions have played in highlighting passenger concerns similar to those you are representing on the rise in fare complexity and so on?
David Sidebottom: Particularly through the research that we have done, we know that value-for-money ratings on Britain’s railway are a lot lower than overall satisfaction with rail journeys among passengers. As we get around to January, the time of year when regulated fares increase, we will see the unions do what they do and be quite vocal about the need for reinvestment in the railway. What we articulate is the view of the passenger, particularly through poor value-for-money ratings. That is something we challenge the Department on, in terms of franchising, individual operators and improving the lot for passengers.
Janet Cooke: In terms of the unions, we do not formally engage with them, but the unions have done good work over the years in essentially being proxy passengers if you cannot talk to passengers themselves. Our board has never called them to give evidence or to speak to the board formally, but if there is a board meeting—particularly one where we are looking at such things as applications to change ticket office opening hours or, more recently, TfL’s proposals to close ticket offices—it is usual for the unions to attend and be in the public gallery. At the chair’s discretion, they might be invited to say something giving the passenger perspective through the unions’ eyes, and our chairs have usually allowed them to do that. It has probably been helpful.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. This is a question for both witnesses. You have spoken about the threat of action on the railways in particular. Do you have experience of people saying to you, “I am worried about the strike”, and perhaps changing their travel patterns and pushing traffic on to the roads and off the railways and the underground—all parts of TfL and the commuter lines—because of the threat of action?
David Sidebottom: On the slightly broader subject of disruption generally, we know that passengers crave timely information that is targeted at them specifically. In the early part of the summer, with the potential strike by Network Rail, both sides were able to negotiate right to the wire. The railway planning system is not sophisticated or agile enough to get emergency timetables up on the system and taken off again at short notice.
People are trying to make decisions about whether to take a journey. I have no evidence of people shifting on to the road, although I suspect that they probably did. They were thinking, “I need to be somewhere in two weeks’ time and there is a threat of a strike on that day.” That is the slight difference with the threat of strike action—bargaining seems to go right to the wire, which is probably inevitable in the game that is played, but for passengers that creates more uncertainty than engineering works on a bank holiday weekend. At least with engineering works, passengers know that it will happen, although they may not like it, and information can be put out to help them.
David Sidebottom: Passengers may innocently go on to websites to book a train ticket, unaware that there will be a strike. They may buy their ticket in advance for a day when there might be strike action. They can get their money back and that is sorted out, but if you are aware of the strike, you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. I am not speaking on behalf of the train industry, but it is equally difficult for them. They can put all the emergency planning in place, but at what point do they allow it on to the systems to give passengers a definitive answer as to whether they can make a journey?
Janet Cooke: In outer London people are able to use their cars—certainly, looking at the BBC reports, there was a big increase in congestion—but for most commuters travelling into central London the car is not a realistic option because there is too much congestion. So there is crowding onto other modes. You made comments earlier about being packed in like sardines; that is the London commuter experience already. So if during peak times you have further congestion because one mode is unavailable that makes things very difficult. The threat of strikes is almost as disruptive, because people change their plans for the day.
In what people submit to you, do they talk about crowding, the stress in terms of organising their lives, business things and childcare, and about travelling on very crowded buses?
Janet Cooke: Yes, we have never done any formal research, so I have no sound evidence that I can quote, but we do get feedback from passengers. I think that 25 people contacted us during the summer specifically about the threat of the tube strikes. That is a lot for us. It gets mentioned in other activities and, by and large, people are not happy about it, but they tend to put up with it. They see it as part of London perhaps—I do not know.
I have a question for Janet, if I may. You did some research, in May 2014 I think, about the dangers presented by overcrowding on the London underground. Many employees on the underground share those concerns. Do you think it is right that they should have the right to take industrial action to address their and passengers’ health and safety concerns?
Janet Cooke: As I said earlier, we have no view on whether staff should be able to strike. Yes the underground is overcrowded, but I think that London Underground closes the network—restricts access, as you will all have experienced at Victoria station—if they think that the platforms are getting dangerously overcrowded. It is a measure of whether you think it feels very overcrowded. It is certainly very uncomfortable, but I am not sure that London Underground would run the system if it felt there were an absolute health and safety risk.
Do you also accept, if I do not push you too far into areas into which you do not want to stray, that facility time in the workplace— trade unions having time to carry out trade union duties— helps in generating those issues and resolving things such as health and safety concerns about overcrowding?
David Sidebottom: I think the same. We do lots of research into how passengers are disrupted, with Network Rail, train operators and passengers. If there were more frequent strikes and disruption on the railway caused by industrial action, we would perhaps be prompted to spend time and do some research on the impact felt by passengers. Like Janet, I have not formed a particularly strong view based on any evidence that we have gathered.
One point that I picked up from doing some background reading was notification of strike action. For rail passengers, whether it is seven days or 14 days, the issue of getting the information is the key thing. It is not just social media and websites, it is posters at stations and that kind of thing. That is probably the best help I can give in terms of answering the question.
I am slightly surprised that you do not have a firmer view on that, and on the balance between people’s ability to strike and the enormous impact on the travelling public.
David Sidebottom: I am interested, as a representative of a consumer organisation, in the impact on individuals of planned or unplanned engineering work or disruption such as industrial action. I am interested in the quality of information and how passengers are empowered to make a decision about where to go and how they make an alternative journey.
One thing we ask is for passengers to rank their priorities for improvement. We often see nothing in our research about information on the back of industrial action. It is about the things that are important to them: a punctual, reliable railway, good value for money and getting a seat.
Janet Cooke: Having done a little research on the internet on strikes that have been reported, certainly in the past six months there seems to have been an increasing amount of industrial activity in the London area, which has an impact. In the past six months we have had five actual strikes—three on the underground and two on Great Western—and four threatened strikes—three on National Rail and one on the tube. We have just had the last strike, which in the end did not have that much impact on passengers because Transport for London continued to run the service on the Waterloo and City line. Now DLR workers are balloting about strike action, so there certainly has been an increase in the amount of activity.
Janet Cooke: It is the attrition. For the first strike, people can often make other arrangements. Strikes have a particular impact on people in jobs where they do not have flexibility. I could work from home if I could not get into work or I could start late and finish late, or whatever. People working in critical, front-line jobs, who do not have that flexibility, are affected disproportionately, because they have no options.
David Sidebottom: Back in 2009-10, London Midland inconvenienced passengers as a result of its inability to roster railway staff to work on Sundays. That is a traditional working pattern that was provided largely through overtime and informal arrangements. We have seen a bit of that with one or two other train operators in recent years, but not on a large scale.
The bigger impact for passengers is short notice and cancellations. It is not a week’s or two weeks’ notice. The ability of a train company to buy out those working arrangements is very much between it, the unions and the staff. It seems to be something that is not quite cured yet. I do not know how that would fit with the Bill, but it does come across as inconveniencing passengers slightly more.
I just have one question for the organisations. If for any reason existing staff, in this case train drivers or bus drivers, were replaced by agency workers, who would be inadequately trained, that would cause both your organisations concern for passenger safety.
I want to focus on the point about timing of ballots. You may be aware that the Bill introduces a four-month time limit. You are talking about the uncertainty caused by striking. It seems that it is on the transport network that these long-standing ballots have been used. What is your view? Do you support that time limit, so that there is greater certainty for yourselves and your passengers?
David Sidebottom: The message that we get loud and clear from passengers whenever there is any disruption, whether it be industrial action, bad weather, or engineering works is, “Get me out of the mess that you are putting me into. Give me the options, give me the information on which I can make choices. When I get up in the morning, is my train going to run, because there are three inches of snow outside and the wind has been blowing, or is there a threat of industrial action?” The requirement for quality information comes across loud and clear.
David Sidebottom: We scour the websites for information provided by a train company, whether it relates to weather, engineering works or strikes. I was talking with colleagues about this a couple of days ago. We were trying to count instances of action, leaving aside the industrial action with Great Western over the course of the summer. They were few and far between. There have been lots of threats of action, and that causes the uncertainty. As we have seen, particularly with weather disruption, the ability of a train company, Network Rail and bus operators to get information out to passengers in a timely, clear and effective way is the bigger challenge.
Janet Cooke: We would expect operators to provide that information. We just put information on our website. As David says, we keep a very close eye on the information that the operators are putting out and, particularly in London, information about alternative routes that people can take.
I suppose the one thing that we notice is that we get anything from double to five or six times the number of people visiting our website when industrial action is threatened. That is one of the few indicators that we have. So, people are desperately looking for information and it needs to be kept up to date. That is the other thing. The threat of strike action is obviously intended to be disruptive; it is the amount of services that actually run that matters. And obviously the operators will want to be as optimistic as they can be, but sometimes the strike action is not as had been intended, so it is also about keeping passengers up to date with accurate information throughout the day. It is not just the spin about which services are running. So, if people have got to work, they might be able to get home by the mode that they usually use. It is about that up-to-date information through the day as well.
Obviously, that can reflect either lost customer hours due to industrial action or it can relate to other causes. Now, I accept that in the last four years there has been an increase in lost customer hours due to industrial action, but what is very telling is that in only four out of the last 12 years has the proportion of overall lost customer hours as a result of industrial action been larger than 10%; it has never been larger than 20%. So, the vast majority of lost customer hours are due to impacts other than strike action or other industrial action; I imagine that it is due to defective equipment, overcrowding, signal failures, adverse weather and so on. Therefore, do you agree that when you look at the overall customer experience, as you are doing, industrial action and its impacts must be kept in perspective?
Janet Cooke: I would agree with that, but the work that is essential in London is to keep London moving, because there is an ageing infrastructure and so many people are using it. The work to upgrade the tube lines, the new trains that the train companies are running and the works to upgrade the lines into London Bridge should make services more reliable and lead to a reduction in lost customer hours. So, the danger is that industrial action will represent a higher proportion of lost customer hours, when lost customer hours should be going down.
I agree, but even in the last four years—in 2011-12 and 2012-13, it barely registered. In 2011-12, 1.3% of lost customer hours resulted from industrial action; in 2012-13, it was 4.9%. I accept that the figure has been higher in the last two years, but these are relatively small numbers; I am not saying that they are not important, but they are relatively small compared with all those other things.
Janet Cooke: I agree, but I would also say that there is, quite rightly, intense media interest in anything like this. So, the headlines really big it up when industrial activity has an impact on passengers, which is probably part of what is meant to happen from the union perspective, but that all adds to passengers’ feeling that disruption is increasing.
But do you agree that there is a danger that if we make national Government policy and legislation for a very, very large area based on media feeling about something—the kind of rhetoric that we hear from some of us around this Committee table—?
David, I do not have the statistics for the rest of the UK transport network, but do you accept that there is a similar thing here, and that we should keep industrial action in perspective, taking into account other reasons for lost customer hours?
David Sidebottom: I think so. We have specifically asked passengers what the priorities should be for improvement, and we also ask whether they are satisfied with what they have got now. We have focused on those areas where there is high priority for improvement and a low level of satisfaction. Information provision is the key driver of dissatisfaction for Britain’s rail passengers, so we focused on that and how the problem manifests itself.
The challenge that we saw over the summer with Network Rail and the “will they/won’t they?” strike situation caused a dilemma for the industry as much as it did for passengers. That is when we put emergency timetable information on to websites and make it available to the public.
Following on from the comments of the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth, if the numbers and the percentages seem small, I am puzzled, as you said before, that Londoners seem to have accepted that strikes are just part of London. It makes me think that the constant talk—are they going to happen, are they not going to happen?—and the uncertainty adds to the disruption to people’s lives, as well as the strikes themselves. Would that be a fair comment?
Janet Cooke: Yes, it does add to the uncertainty. My comment was not intended to be flippant, but from the feedback we get there is an air of resignation about commuting in the London area. It is going to be overcrowded; it is great when it works, but it does not always work as well as it might. Maybe my point was slightly inappropriate, but it is part of an overall feeling. I think that, as commuters into London, you just accept, if you commute a long distance into London, what the experience tends to be like.
Picking up on something you said earlier, I am interested in how different types of people on different income levels are affected by strikes. You mentioned that people in certain jobs are probably more easily able to work from home—for example, people in office jobs—than people in shift work and lower-paid jobs, where that is more difficult. Will you talk about your experience of that?
Janet Cooke: We at Transport Focus have not done much research on that. The only thing I could say is that we are in the middle of doing some focus-group research—not on strike action, but things sometimes emerge in focus groups that you are not necessarily expecting—and certainly one or two that I observed a couple of weeks ago were talking about the travel experience in the London area and ways of getting to work. Spontaneously, because there have been quite a lot of tube strikes, there was a lot of discussion about strikes and their impact on people’s lives. These were people on very low incomes whose employers had paid for taxis to get them to work. This is not necessarily statistically accurate; it just happened to be spontaneously coming up in focus groups I was observing.
You have both talked about your organisations representing passenger feelings. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth said that the overwhelming numbers of days lost through delays and everything else—even in London, the figure is about 80%—is not down to any form of industrial action. I have to say that, outside London, I have not had any lost journey in my regular commute from the north-east in the past five or six years due to industrial action, although I have had many for other reasons. Have you got anything to say about whether the causes of a lost day makes any difference to the impact on the life of a passenger, a member of the community? Secondly, are you aware that nothing in the Bill would impact on any of the rail stoppages that have happened in recent years in London, because they would meet the thresholds on the ballot that they had already held?
David Sidebottom: On the general point about impact, the national rail passenger survey that we run gathers around 60,000 passengers’ views about their journey every year and the biggest driver of dissatisfaction is not just about the fact that there has been disruption but about the way it is managed. It is back to the information story and how you get me out of the situation you have put me in. So there is an impact there.
In answer to the earlier question about the impact on individuals, it is quite telling that when I was at Piccadilly station trying to travel home a few weeks ago on a delayed journey, listening to some conversations that were going on among passengers—people on zero-hours contracts, for example, who were not going to get paid that day because they could not get to their job—it does not just affect people who work 9 to 5. The level of impact can vary.
I am well aware that not all people work 9 to 5. I travel 300 miles from my home every week to come to work—at least, the London part of my work—but I was asking whether it makes any difference to the impact on somebody’s life what has actually caused the delay or disruption, bearing in mind the tiny percentage that is caused by industrial action?
To what extent is the evidence you are presenting today applicable to the experience in Scotland and, perhaps, Wales, given that much of your work appears to be in England and particularly in London?
David Sidebottom: On rail in Scotland and Wales, we are a GB-wide body on rail passenger representation. The information that we gather covers England, Scotland and Wales. We work very closely with Transport Scotland and provide information there. In fact, the rail passenger satisfaction survey is a key target with the new franchise arrangement between Transport Scotland and Abellio ScotRail.
In terms of your own work, such as underground journeys, there is nothing about tube journeys in Scotland or anything like that that you can say.