I beg to move,
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I hope that hon. Members will forgive me for saying that my heart sinks as I look around the Chamber. That is not an indictment on any hon. Member, but I have a horrible sense of déjà vu that here we are again to address an issue that causes such misery to so many of our constituents. Having said that, it is a pleasure to see the Minister in her place. I know that she is on the side of passengers and that she is acutely aware of the issues that will be aired in this debate. I am aware of her personal initiatives in trying to sort out the problems and the high priority and she and her Department attach to their resolution.
Notwithstanding the Minister’s hard work and the entreaties from many MPs, we still seem incapable of securing the service for which our constituents pay so much, and which they have every right to expect. Many colleagues wish to contribute to the debate, so I will not run through every email I have received from my constituents on the subject—that would take some time—but I hope you will allow me to mention just a few, Mr Hollobone.
A 23-year-old female constituent was left stranded with no money when the last train to Horsham terminated unannounced at Three Bridges. Another constituent has calculated that if his train service continues for the rest of the year as it has to date this year, he will have spent the equivalent of an entire working week on or waiting for delayed trains. Another constituent wrote—I assume with tongue in cheek—that he no longer minds the late running of his usual train on the grounds that earlier trains are routinely so late that he can always catch one of those.
My constituents’ correspondence is supported by hard numbers. Average performance targets across the country are for 89.3% of trains to arrive within five minutes of schedule. I appreciate that the southern region is complex. It has 180 million passengers and the trains go into London Bridge station, which is in the midst of a complex and welcome redevelopment, but that was presumably baked into the woefully low target of 80.2% that it set itself in February 2015. Alas, that low baseline has been consistently missed.
A public performance measure of 83% back in the third quarter of 2010 fell to 76% in the third quarter of last year. Across the national rail network, there is a two-thirds probability of a train arriving within a minute of the scheduled time. For Govia Thameslink Railway that falls to one in two, but for my constituents recently it has been as low as 30% and currently under 40% of trains arrive as scheduled.
For my constituents using the Brighton main line from Balcombe, which in 2014 was the worst service in the country, with one service arriving late every day during the year, there has been nothing like a sufficient improvement. Perhaps the Minister will comment on the practicalities. We hear a lot about 24 trains a day running through Thameslink and to the north, which is a wonderful aspiration, but if these practices continue, I do not know how practical it will be to achieve that.
Many constituents believe that trains are cancelled to meet punctuality targets. I do not know whether that is true, but it is shocking that over the past year one in 20 of all Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern trains were either 30 minutes late or cancelled. It is a regular refrain for all of us to hear about constituents stranded or left with long waits to complete their journey home. I will return to that theme, but I note that passenger satisfaction with how delays are handled was the worst in the country when measured last autumn.
I have tracked specific action points set out by the operators and Network Rail to improve the service since May 2015 and identified 40 individual points. In discussions with the operators and Network Rail, it seems that 31 have been achieved and a further five are in progress and getting there. It is bewildering that, despite a 90% success rate, there has apparently been so little impact on customer experience on the ground. I know that 84 drivers were recruited for Southern and 38 for Thameslink in 2015. I know that 286 drivers are to be recruited across GTR in 2016 and that 251 are currently in training. I know that the class 700 is coming in, which I am sure will be a great success. I know that engineering work continues on the line and that London Bridge station is being rebuilt, at a cost of £6 billion, which is all good news. What I do not know, and what none of us knows, is when all this positive activity will ever improve the service that our constituents experience.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he agree that despite the great efforts of the company and Network Rail to carry out improvements—we all know how complex they are—there remains a real industrial relations problem? In some depots, the standards of modern manpower management are not nearly good enough. Does my hon. Friend also agree that the company needs to confront these issues and deal with them? If very highly paid drivers will not act in the interests of passengers, that is another reason why the company needs to get its act together?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his intervention. He raises an interesting point. I am not in the habit of blaming staff for the failings of management, but we need to know where the problems lie. I have quoted statistics about how many drivers are coming in and how many are going through training. I appreciate that the class 700 requires drivers to be taken out for more training and so on, but ultimately our constituents do not mind how many drivers there are. They mind about being able to get home. If the contracts mean that they cannot have a reliable service throughout the Christmas period and at other peak travelling times, that is a problem for our constituents.
It is not for the Chamber or the Minister to micromanage what the companies should be doing, but we need answers that work. The thrust of my point is that we hear so much about improvements and I believe that they are being made, but we do not see the evidence on the ground and the service continues to be far too poor.
My constituents have a sense of wonderment in a couple of directions. They wonder what can have possessed the train companies to think that now is a good time to close ticket offices outside peak times. The ticket machines at Horsham station are slow, difficult to navigate and do not contain the range of tickets that can be purchased over the counter. In the words of one constituent:
“As a Southern customer I receive a large number of delay repay vouchers. These cannot be used in the machines.”
Take that as you will. Another writes:
“why are Southern’s machine’s so difficult. I struggle with the complex menu navigation”.
That constituent professionally trains people in how to navigate complex software.
Too often, passengers realise that they have accidentally paid more than necessary for fares on the machines, but I suspect that more often they pay too much but are not aware of it.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful point about tickets, and perhaps he will forgive me if I am pre-empting him. A major problem on Southern’s Uckfield line is that there has never been a ticket office open anyway. We can rely only on the machines. Would it not be much more sensible, rather than of having complex ticketing that no one can get the right ticket from, to have electronic ticketing so that people get the right ticket according to the journey they have made and, more importantly, are refunded when companies run their trains so late, so that they do not need to have a voucher or to put paper into the machine?
It is always a pleasure to be pre-empted by my hon. Friend Tom Tugendhat. He raises a valuable point that I hope the Minister will respond to, particularly in the context of delay repay. There must be a simpler way in this modern age for people to get their money back for journeys for which they bought a service but did not receive it. I am sure my hon. Friend is well ahead of me with the technical means for dealing with such things. There must be better ways of delivering that service.
I speak for a number of hon. Members here when asking those responsible for ticket offices to think again long and hard before proceeding with these closures, which I believe should not take place. In particular, I ask them, in the current environment of huge uncertainty faced by passengers and a poor service, how on earth reducing customer interface can possibly be in the interests of either passengers or the companies.
I will mention another sense of wonderment shared by my constituents. They look at the performance of our operators and Network Rail. They experience at first hand the chaos of what is the first step in a number of improvements that need to be made to the lines. They all too often stand cheek by jowl with other passengers on trains going through the deepest cutting anywhere in western Europe on their way to London. And they ask themselves in what parallel universe anyone could believe that the public infrastructure laid out in the 19th century to serve rural towns and commuters could possibly support Gatwick airport were it to double in size with a new runway to take the same number of passengers as Heathrow and a far greater number of workers forced to commute from far afield to service the new facility. In fairness, I do not expect the Minister to respond to that point today, but I raise it to share with the Government the frustrations felt by my constituents. If anyone imagines that the existing infrastructure could cope with a minimum of an extra 90,000 passenger journeys a day, that shows a complete failure to understand the sheer inadequacy of the current service.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. With regard to Gatwick airport, he is absolutely right that the existing rail infrastructure can barely cope as it is, let alone were there to be an additional runway. Although I welcome the more than £50 million-worth of investment in upgrading the Gatwick station, in terms of line capacity Gatwick has not offered any assistance, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that that means Gatwick is absolutely the wrong choice for runway expansion in London and the south-east.
I thank my hon. Friend for that point. He is absolutely right. If one looks at a possible alternative to Gatwick, one sees four or five main railway lines, Crossrail coming in and a potential spur to High Speed 2, as well as the tube network, faster journey times into London and a large number of would-be employees who are looking for employment absolutely on their doorstep, but we will not dwell on that; we will dwell on the subject at hand. I raised it purely because of the frustration that many of our constituents feel that their problems cannot be being taken seriously if people are seriously considering that they can throw all these extra passengers on to the same line.
I know that the Minister has put a huge personal investment of time and energy into sorting out the problems in this area. She has referred in the past to the massive productivity gain that could be gleaned were the problem to be solved, and she is absolutely right. We heard more in the Budget speech today about the productivity gains that could be had from transport. This is the basic work that needs to be put together to get real productivity gains for our economy. I know that the Minister is aware of that and of the human misery that entails from the problems on this line. May I offer three comments by way of conclusion?
First, we are all far too familiar with long and complex lists of the factors that need to be got right to improve the service. I have no doubt that those are provided in genuine good faith by committed managers, but they are simply inadequate for either solving the issues or reassuring passengers. Can we please hear less about the inputs and more about committed outputs that are deliverable and can be delivered on time? As part of that, I would like to see Network Rail, which seems a very distant organisation—according to the statistics, it is probably responsible for 57% of the delays on my line—far more customer-focused in the way it approaches its problems, and anything that the Minister can do to bring it closer to the reality of what its service entails would be welcome.
Secondly, I know that the Minister is a great advocate of more efficient, simpler and more generous refunds through delay repay, as so eloquently said by my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling. I would very much like to hear anything more that she can share with us on that. It is a way of concentrating the minds of the train companies, as well as providing what are only the just deserts for passengers who have been affected.
My last comment relates to the structure of the service. I do not believe that nationalisation or stripping commercial firms of franchises is a panacea. However, this is by far the largest and most complex task to get right in the network. I hope that if the Minister decides that its sheer scale and complexity requires the attention of smaller and more nimble spheres of operation, she will not be afraid to start that process.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. Unlike some Thameslink services, this debate has started on time and will finish on time. I am determined that everyone should be able to speak, so I will impose from the first Back-Bench speech a time limit of five minutes. If hon. Members are sparing with interventions, everyone should have that amount of time. Very generously, the Scottish National party spokesman and the Labour spokesman have said that they do not need to take their full allocation. I know that the Minister will want to use any extra time at the end to answer points. I hope to start calling the Front Benchers at 3.34 pm, and then Mr Quin gets another three minutes at the end to sum up the debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate Jeremy Quin on securing this timely debate. We are discussing Govia and the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman’s constituents will not be too surprised to learn that many of the problems they face on the Southern railway are shared by commuters using the Great Northern routes in Enfield. It is quite an indictment of Govia that across the franchise, in both the south-east and the north of London and beyond, the service is totally unacceptable.
The stations that Govia serves in Enfield, on the Hertford loop, are Crews Hill, Gordon Hill and Enfield Chase. According to the rail regulator, there were 180,000 entries and exits at Crews Hill last year. There were 1.3 million entries and exits at Gordon Hill and 1.4 million at Enfield Chase. Those stations experienced a 9% and 5% increase in usage respectively between 2013-14 and 2014-15. With such a significant rise in numbers in the course of one year, the need for a reliable service becomes ever more important, and indeed that is exactly what Govia told us we could expect and it would provide.
In 2014, when the Department for Transport awarded Govia the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise, David Brown, chief executive of the Go-Ahead Group, which is the lead partner behind the Govia venture, said that the
“bid for the franchise was focused on improving customers’ experience”.
Well, if my mailbag and my own difficulties as I travel on the line day in, day out during the week are anything to go by, the performance is completely inadequate. I am almost wary of going on to the train platform. I do not know about the hon. Member for Horsham, but I could run an advice surgery on the train service while I am waiting for the train.
Trains run consistently late. On
I have also been approached by constituents who have raised concerns about Govia’s consultation on ticket office closures, which will affect Gordon Hill and Enfield Chase as much as the commuters on Southern. The consultation was poorly advertised, with little publicity about the proposals at the stations concerned. The residents who contacted me about the matter found out about the consultation not from Govia, but from leaflets handed out by those campaigning against the measure. Govia needs to be absolutely clear with passengers about what its plans might mean. Will commuters still be able to arrange season ticket sales, railcards, photocards, advanced discount fares and refunds at a station without a ticket office? How many job losses in Enfield and elsewhere will result if ticket office closures go ahead as planned?
I understand that National Rail is responsible for almost 60% of delays on Govia, but Govia is therefore responsible for four in 10 delayed trains. I would suggest that to serve the commuters in my constituency and elsewhere properly, and to give them the fair deal that they deserve, Govia Thameslink Railway really needs to get its act together as fast as possible.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Jeremy Quin for securing the debate and agree with him that this really is déjà vu all over again. For all of us here, the issue is one of the single biggest annoyances in our constituencies at the moment. I get daily emails with progress or lack-of-progress reports from constituents, tweets and other social media. I have taken to having a “Trainwatch” section on my website, where I post, three times a day, the performance or lack-of-performance charts from Govia Thameslink Railway, which are usually a mass of red and yellow showing lateness.
On Monday, I visited the Three Bridges operation centre, so that I could see at first hand how it was dealing with all the problems. It is a very impressive facility where Network Rail works alongside Southern rail. I was taken around by the chief executive, Charles Haughton, and I am grateful to him for the time he took to show me around. However, it is very clear that GTR is still nowhere like on top of the problems.
We were shown charts that were not just red, but pink, which is when it is in complete meltdown. The very morning that I was there, the whole signalling structure was outed for some 10 minutes, causing absolute chaos.
I then travelled in the cab with the chief executive up to London Victoria. Again, it was good to see at first hand some of the challenges faced by GTR. Fortunately, the train arrived into Victoria only 10 minutes late. I recognise the problems and challenges of the infrastructure going back to the 1930s, and we heard all about that at the heated meeting with the management and the Minister back on
I got an email just that morning from a constituent saying that they had just been told that the 7.31 am from Shoreham had been cancelled. At 7.35 am, they saw it shoot through Shoreham station. Later in the day, I found out that, in fact, the train had not been cancelled. There was a problem with the train crew at source. Southern had then chosen to shoot through some stations to try to make up that time, so, effectively, it had lied to consumers. It is no wonder that our constituents are getting cynical about the reasons for some of the delays. I said to GTR that it needs to be honest with passengers. Passengers will understand when major structural problems cause delays, but they need to be told the truth. If trains are to shoot through stations, passengers need to be given good warning of that and told exactly the reason why.
Some of the charts that I have posted on my website are quite appalling. One day, only 51 of 114 Gatwick Express trains actually arrived on time, and 30 were more than 30 minutes late or cancelled. Only two thirds of trains on the Brighton main line arrived on time that day. For people coming into Gatwick and getting on to the Gatwick Express, this is the “Welcome to Britain” sign, and that sort of inconvenience and hassle does not give a good impression of the services in this country.
I praise the social media that GTR is using to try to communicate more, but it needs to be much more transparent about the problems. The issue is having an impact on students in my constituency, who are arriving late at lessons as trains are overshooting their stops. Commuters are saying that they are going to move back to London.
In such a backdrop, the ticket office closures add insult to injury, with closures of the majority of 84 station ticket offices across the south-east. In Shoreham and Lancing, the ticket offices will close. At Worthing, it will be there for peak time only. The closures are supposedly based on a survey of ticket office usage. Nobody knows when that survey happened or how many people were involved. In fact, in Shoreham, the ticket office has been closed on many occasions because of staff illness. That information is not available for the three-week-only consultation that is closing this week. There will then be a week for Transport Focus to decide what recommendation to make but, in any case, it has no veto over GTR’s intentions.
I have had lots of emails, and some 2,300 people have signed a petition in 10 days. Tomorrow evening, I will be holding a meeting with Southern rail. Southern rail managers are coming down to Shoreham where constituents can see them at first hand and get the answers to why we have a shoddy service and why they have this ridiculous idea, in the interests of enhanced passenger experience, to do away with those station ticket offices and replace them with station hosts. Station hosts are there to tell people why the ticket machine is not working, and to deal with the trains coming into the station, and with maintenance and security. If people are lucky, hosts will have some time to advise them on how to buy their ticket.
Finally, there is the issue of the continued closure of the underpass at Shoreham station where, just last week, a 20-year old man was fatally hit by a train. We need to do more to be much more responsive to public need.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. It is also a pleasure to address the railways Minister, who I know is genuinely committed to our railways and is a railway enthusiast. With her in place, I hope we will solve some problems.
I congratulate Jeremy Quin on securing the debate, but I should say something first about my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am chair of the ASLEF group of MPs. ASLEF, as hon. Members know, is the union for train drivers. In their defence, in my experience, drivers are unfailing in their politeness and very helpful in keeping passengers informed when things go wrong. Things go wrong quite often, but that is not their fault.
I have travelled on the Luton to London line every day of my working life since 1969—some 47 years—so I have quite a bit of experience. Govia, despite having newer and longer trains available, is probably the worst operator during all my years of travelling. It does not appear to appreciate the number of staff it needs to operate a train service effectively, and I receive regular complaints from my constituents, especially those using Leagrave station in my constituency. The current customer satisfaction rating shows that fewer than three out of four passengers are satisfied with the service, and that is among the lowest of all the franchises.
Govia is currently proposing to close ticket offices, which is just the latest attempt to cut costs and drive up profits. In my view, a public service should reinvest surpluses and not simply distribute them to shareholders. I am grateful to one of my constituents for making some helpful comments on the changes proposed to Leagrave station. She said that the proposals are “clearly cost-cutting” and will be “detrimental to passenger service.” Some 947,000 passengers use Leagrave every year, which is slightly under 1 million, but there are not enough ticket machines for the current demand and there are no proposals to increase the number. Some are out of date and do not accept current credit or debit cards. Not all types of tickets are available and sometimes faults say that even some basic tickets are “not available.”
I detest machines and much prefer purchasing my ticket from a person. I am very fortunate that I use Luton station, which has a well-staffed booking office with some helpful and charming booking staff. I am not alone in buying my ticket every day—30% of people buy tickets from ticket offices every day and they should be available to all. Not all passengers can use a machine because of disabilities or medical reasons. Govia has a legal duty to ensure equality of access, particularly for people with visual impairments, dyslexia or learning difficulties—I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group on dyslexia and other specific learning difficulties, so I am aware of those problems—and mental health difficulties.
When the ticket office is open at Leagrave, my constituent says that there are nearly always queues, presumably because people prefer not to use a machine, or because they have a query or their ticket is not available from the machines, and they get a better service from a person. I do not know the responsibilities of the hosts proposed by Govia but, presumably, they will also be staffing barriers and dealing with other issues for passengers, or even issuing penalties, which is time consuming in itself.
There are two entrances to Leagrave station so Leagrave will have two “hosts”. How does Govia intend to comply with health and safety requirements if only one person is on duty and not behind a glass screen? What passed for a waiting room at Leagrave, at one entrance only, was recently converted for barriers only, so I am not sure where the hosts are supposed to operate from. Shelter on the platforms is also minimal.
I use the internet infrequently, but my constituent tells me that the Govia Thameslink website is “totally inadequate” for obtaining accurate information or booking tickets reliably. I am told that not all types of ticket are available on the website and that railcard options are not integrated into ordinary purchases. Govia has not supplied sufficient information to enable people to respond meaningfully to the consultation. Govia says that
“some ticket offices issue less than 12 tickets per hour”,
but there is no way of comparing that figure with other stations or other times of the day. I have tabled an early-day motion on the subject and urge the Minister to review Govia’s franchise with the view to taking it within her Department.
Finally, on punctuality, if I have to get to a meeting in Westminster on time, I go for an earlier train than normal just in case the train is late, as the trains so often are—not missing meetings, and indeed votes, at Westminster is important to Members of Parliament. There are other things that are not Govia’s fault, one of which is sometimes the state of the track. Between St Pancras and the Elstree and Borehamwood tunnel, the track in some places is not good. Almost every day one hears the stops being hit as we go over rough bits of track. Network Rail has something to answer for, too.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Jeremy Quin on securing this debate. I agree with every word he said. The performance of the franchise simply is not good enough. It is a matter of deep regret and enormous frustration that Members have had to come back to this Chamber again to raise concerns about its performance. The figures speak for themselves. In 2011, 78% of Southern passengers were satisfied with train punctuality and reliability. In spring 2015 the figure had fallen to just over half, 56%, and in the autumn it had risen to 65%—fewer than two thirds of passengers were satisfied. Last year, Southern was effectively voted by passengers the worst franchise in the country.
That is unacceptable when, one year ago, thanks to the Minister’s sterling efforts, the industry gathered together and agreed a performance improvement plan for the franchise that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham said, set a benchmark for performance that was already far lower than that in the rest of the industry. What do we see one year later? In the past three months, the franchise has consistently fallen below the standard set by its own benchmark, which was already low. That is simply not acceptable. Indeed, in the original performance improvement plan, the industry said:
“You will notice real improvements from now onwards in the punctuality and reliability of our trains.”
That promise has been broken. It will evince nothing more than a hollow laugh from passengers, who are absolutely fed up. Day after day we hear the franchise’s excuses on its trains, including a shortage of rolling stock. What happened to the rolling stock? How can a train be missed? Why are there inadequate amounts of rolling stock? Another excuse is that drivers are not available. That is not necessarily because, as has been pointed out to me, drivers are failing to turn up, but simply because an inadequate number of drivers are employed by the company. An airline would not run things like that, so why should we accept it from the rail industry?
Where is the accountability for this lamentable performance? Who is being held accountable, and how, for the complete failure to deliver by the franchise’s own standards and the promises that it made? The franchise said a year ago that it would deliver improvements, and those improvements have not been delivered. What penalty will be exacted against it? Have senior managers been held accountable in any way? Have they had their pay frozen or their salaries cut? I hope there have been no performance-related bonuses. There could not possibly have been because the performance has been so bad. Perhaps there should be performance-related penalties. Where is there accountability in the system that will drive better performance? The public are fairly asking those questions.
When the franchise was first awarded in May 2014— I am sorry to have to remind the Minister of this—the Department for Transport’s press notice said:
“Demanding contractual obligations on the operator will deliver cleaner and more spacious trains and improve passenger satisfaction. Tough new benchmarks for performance, train and station cleanliness and customer service information have also been agreed.”
The impression that was created was that the service would get better; it has got worse. Where is the accountability? How will this service be held to account?
None of us has any complaint about how the Minister has approached the issue—far from it. She has arraigned the companies concerned in front of Members and required the companies to meet us to account for themselves. She drove the introduction of the performance improvement plan, and she has done her level best to insist on greater performance, but we cannot find ourselves arriving in this Chamber in one year’s time having experienced the same level of delays and lack of passenger satisfaction as we have now. The service simply must improve. If it will not improve rapidly, we have to consider more radical action to address the problem. The lack of performance is undermining faith in the entire policy of engaging the private sector to deliver public services. In that respect, it is very damaging to the Government and to the reputation of the whole industry. It is simply not good enough, it must improve and there must be accountability on the part of the franchisee to deliver better performance.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Jeremy Quin on securing this debate. There is almost nothing in what has been said with which I do not wholeheartedly agree.
Listening to my right hon. Friend Nick Herbert, I recognise the trap that the Minister is in. In one of the meetings that she arranged for us to be briefed by her director of franchising, it was made perfectly clear that the option exists to remove the franchise from Govia, but colleagues will recall his extremely strong advice that placing the management of this railway back in the hands of the Department for Transport and the public sector is almost certainly against the interests of our constituents. There are limitations on the levers available to the Minister to improve the performance of both Govia and Network Rail. Of course, in the terms of the franchise, she inherited the fare income and is paying a management fee to Govia for running the service, which I hope is an area in which her imagination and energy can begin to address the fundamental issue of unfairness for our constituents. They are getting a rotten service, and they are being inadequately served and inadequately advised about the service they are getting. As my right hon. Friend said, who is accountable? We have to work hard to try to address the issue of perceived unfairness.
The Minister knows that I feel that particularly strongly because the part of the network that I represent catches the full trains and the highest fares per mile into London—being just outside the London area, my constituents pay £1,000 a year more than for the equivalent ticket just inside zone 6. That is why I am particularly attracted to the suggestion that my hon. Friends the Members for Horsham and for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) made about electronic ticketing. I strongly invite the Minister to go beyond her commitment to reducing the delay repayment threshold from 30 to 15 minutes and to use her energy and imagination to get tucked into electronic ticketing. I do not see why, in this day and age, we cannot hold out to our constituents a fair system that automatically adjusts for services that do not happen, for services that are late and for the number of services that people take, and that reflects their experience on the trains. Even simply the prospect of introducing such a system would begin to win back the trust of those who use the service, as they would know there will at least be fairness at the end of the line.
I note the remarks of Transport Focus in its latest letter to me on
“We are calling for the industry to restore trust, especially among commuters, with credible promises, backed by sustained, improved performance....A fare reduction for badly affected passengers would also help.”
That is within my hon. Friend’s gift to a degree, although I recognise the financial pressure that the Department remains under, as does the rest of the Government.
On Gatwick, I want to reinforce a point made by my hon. Friends about the ticket offices. This has been raised with me by constituents using Merstham and
Reigate stations. I agree with my hon. Friend Tim Loughton, who said that if people have to stand out the front and explain why the machine is not working, that will not help much either.
Finally, if anyone thinks for a moment that this is an appropriate line on which to support Gatwick with a second runway, they need their head examining. On Gatwick’s own numbers, there will be a 69% growth in predicted traffic if we go from one to two runways in 2040, which will actually mean a massive increase in the use of the railway for Gatwick passengers. It is totally unsustainable as an option, and I hope the rail Minister will make the position very clear in the assessment of the options.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am in complete agreement with all the hon. and right hon. Friends and Members who have spoken so far.
I want to start by mentioning some positives. In the previous Parliament, I was very grateful when Three Bridges station received £26 million in upgrade funding. I am proud of the fact that the new Southern area control centre, a state-of-the-art facility, is based at Three Bridges rail yard. In this Parliament, I have been grateful for the fact that the new Thameslink train care facility is located also at Three Bridges rail yard. It was good to see the Transport Secretary there last year for its opening. It is a very impressive facility indeed and will go a long way to helping to service the longer and more state-of-the-art Thameslink trains that are coming along, we hope, later this year and I am sure will improve the customer experience.
As smart ticketing has been mentioned, I want to welcome the extension of the Oyster zone to Gatwick airport. Like my hon. Friends the Members for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) and for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), I would like to see smart metering throughout the network. It is a much more efficient way of running services and also an aid in terms of refunds. The issue of refunds, as hon. and right hon. Friends have mentioned, needs to be better addressed.
However, I also recognise what Kelvin Hopkins said about the importance of there still being a human presence at ticket offices. It is extremely important. He is a very distinguished chair of the all-party group on dyslexia, and what he said about disability access was absolutely right as well. My constituents have been telling me about what they believe is the folly of ticket office closures. Of course we can have a more efficient system, and there will be some stations where ticket offices, perhaps with new technology, are a thing of the past, but at the moment it is not appropriate to go forward with such a programme.
A lot of investment has benefited my constituency in recent years, but the experience, as the hon. Member for Luton North said, has been unacceptable. I commute daily to Westminster. Like the hon. Gentleman, I have now allowed myself an extra hour to get into this place, which is ridiculous. I should be able to rely on the train timetable with a degree of certainty. When I stand, all too often at peak times, with my fellow commuter constituents from Three Bridges, the level of service and the slowness of the services is simply not acceptable. Little things might seem quite minor, such as a train coming in from Brighton on the way into London and the announcement on the train or at the station that the train is going in the opposite direction, which occurs too often. The vast majority of people who get on that train every morning know that yet again a mistake has been made, but for a visitor to this country coming into Gatwick airport, for example, that could be a major problem. Also, it does huge reputational damage to the railways. People can be seen rolling their eyes and saying, “They’ve messed up again.” Indeed they have. Such a poor level of service really cannot be tolerated.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham on securing this debate. I very much hope that it will be another effort that will encourage better service delivery as we go forward. I add my voice in thanking the rail Minister for all the effort she has put in over recent months.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend Jeremy Quin on securing this debate.
It is disappointing that we are having this debate, because the Government have a proud record on investment in rail services, particularly in Thameslink. In the previous Parliament, a £6.5 billion investment programme was secured. This was welcomed by many of my constituents who use the line, alighting at Mill Hill Broadway and Hendon. As part of the programme, the station at Farringdon has been rebuilt, a new station has been constructed at Blackfriars bridge and redevelopment is currently taking place at London Bridge, so the benefits for passengers from my constituency are set to continue. The Thameslink line will have its own dedicated track from Bedford to Brighton, which will ensure that trains are not delayed at London Bridge. It will allow for more trains, and new, longer rolling stock will create much needed extra capacity.
Within my constituency, there is a new ticket office at Mill Hill Broadway station. I successfully sought the abolition of cash machine charges at the station, saving passengers £1.80 per transaction. That was welcomed by my constituents, and I was very pleased to have been able to contribute as the local MP. However, I want further improvements at Mill Hill Broadway, including a lift installed, so that the elderly and disabled, people with suitcases, and parents with children and buggies will be able to access the station more easily. That project is progressing through a consortium of stakeholders, and I hope to be able to inform my constituents of further progress soon.
However, it is the Thameslink line itself—both the train operating company and Network Rail—that gives my constituents most cause for concern. Like other Members have said, I receive emails from constituents pretty much on a daily basis outlining their experiences. I received one yesterday from a constituent who said:
“The line has further deteriorated in the last 6-9 months. The reliability issues with rolling stock, signals, rails has been further exacerbated by shortages of driver/crews.”
However, what is really damaging customer satisfaction is the apparent unwillingness of GTR to do anything to alleviate the pain and suffering of my constituents.
GTR continues to put four-car trains on the slow part of the line in rush hours. When there is a service interruption, it refuses to stop the fast trains at intervening stations, such as Mill Hill Broadway, which is equipped for 12-car trains. This is an experience echoed by other Members. The fast trains pass through, often half full, and passengers can be expected to wait up to an hour before a slow train is provided. This is totally unacceptable on what is a metro service where people have to get to and from work in central London. Half-empty trains not stopping at overcrowded stations in the event of a service breakdown is, at best, frustrating and annoying. I have asked Govia if it can exert more flexibility in such circumstances and, although I accept that the train company and Network Rail have to bear in mind the knock-on effect on other service timetables, I share my constituents’ belief that Govia demonstrates an unwillingness to vary its operating procedures in the interests of customer services.
I understand that the other morning a 12-car fast train was stopped at a signal in Mill Hill Broadway station, but the driver would not open the doors, even though his train was half full and there were hundreds of people waiting for a train standing on the station. I believe that GTR’s customer service statistics, low as they are, are about to get a whole lot worse as passenger feelings rise at its apparent contempt for people who have to travel on the line.
One of my constituents commented that the
“train arrived on time (no problem on the line) and was so full between 5-10 people per door couldn’t get on. Overcrowded doesn’t begin to describe it. Running 4 or 5 (all stations) trains per hour at rush hour is hopeless. I tried to board but just couldn’t squeeze on.”
“In the carriages seats seem designed for children—facing seats are intimately close. The passageway is not wide enough for a passenger leaving to squeeze past a standing passenger without squashing them.”
Yet another said:
“In the evenings—when operating on schedule—there are 3 or 4 all stations trains per hour and some are only 4 (not 8) carriages. Another wait and squeeze.”
I have received many such emails, and it is frankly embarrassing, when we have the new franchise and new opportunities for rolling stock are coming forward, that we appear to be let down by the train operating company and, indeed, Network Rail. Network Rail is a cause of some of the problems, but that is not being effectively communicated to my constituents and others.
I concur with comments that have been made about ticket offices. Many of my residents who are elderly or who have problems getting access to the ticket machines would find the removal of ticket offices a great burden. I will conclude by mentioning that I am a former chairman of the all-party group on Thameslink, but had to resign when I was made a Parliamentary Private Secretary. I suggest that we resurrect the group with the Members here today.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Jeremy Quin on securing the debate, and agree about being rather tired of seeing each other’s faces in these circumstances—so sorry.
Despite all the recent talk and excuses, my constituents across Wealden, who commute on the misery line previously known as the Uckfield line, still have to put up with delays, timetable changes, short-formed trains, extended engineering works, overcrowding, unsatisfactory compensation processes, nonsensical bus replacements, poor communication and—the latest nail in the coffin—potential ticket office closures. I want to take this opportunity to ask my right hon. and hon. Friends to join me in writing to the Transport Committee. I first wrote to the Committee in July asking for an inquiry into the performance of Southern. I wrote again six months later, in January, asking it to consider an inquiry again, because of the constant and continued failure of the service. We need proper answers and accountability. I do not believe that GTR and Network Rail understand the impact of the disruption on individual passengers—but also on their families, jobs, and the rural economy in places such as Wealden.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend and will certainly sign her letter. The service is shocking. Does she agree that if it does not improve within a reasonable time, we should look at the franchise itself?
I wholeheartedly agree. I want to describe the events on the network in an average week, which Southern itself later admitted in an email was “particularly disruptive for passengers”—for which I read “failing to deliver a service”. Southern cited
“a series of incidents affecting the service each day.”
For that, I read “complete and utter management failure”. We had signalling failures at Norwood, Bognor and London Bridge, a power supply failure at Littlehaven, a major signalling failure at Purley, a train at Coulsdon with door problems, a Horsham-bound service with power issues, a broken-down train at Clapham Junction and, once again, crew shortages. All of that has a knock-on effect on the Uckfield line. Southern has failed on its own baseline public performance measure. I would like to know how the management is being held to account and what the penalties are.
Last year, Southern decided to publish a fantasy timetable—a bit like a fantasy football team, I believe, because it had no bearing on the experiences of the passengers on the line. On
The situation is not just dire; it is unsafe. My constituent Alistair, from Crowborough, wrote last week that
“if a serious incident took place, it would be physically impossible to move to a neighbouring carriage, such is the level of overcrowding in Standard Class.”
We all get regular correspondence on the issue, and the local radio station for Uckfield has a more or less regular slot on constituents’ frustrations with travelling on the Uckfield line. I had to share with my constituents, after a recent summit meeting with GTR executives, the appalling news that the horizon for improvements was to be pushed back again by six months, to 18 months. Wealden would like to know when this journey from hell will end, and I hope that hon. and right hon. Members will join me in calling on the Transport Committee to enter the fray.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone; you are very kind. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend Jeremy Quin on securing the debate and opening it with such gusto. I also thank my right hon. Friend Nick Herbert for alerting his Sussex colleagues to the opportunity to attend the debate this afternoon.
I feel that I have earned a testimonial for this subject, having used Southern services to commute from my home in east Sussex to London for the past 10 years. As a member of the Transport Committee, I have a passion for the rail industry and regard it as one of the great success stories of recent years. Since 1997 passenger numbers have doubled and we now have the fastest growing network in Europe. I welcome the Government’s commitment, with £39 billion of capital investment, to making the railways even better.
The Southern and Govia franchise is undoubtedly an immense operation. As we were told last year, 175,000 people travel on it every day. As many passengers go through Southern’s stations as go through Heathrow. London Bridge station is the subject of immense development, and the track is being untangled and lines extended, while trains still run above the building site. Track work south of Croydon has not had any investment since the 1930s. The challenge is simultaneously to upgrade our ageing infrastructure and to allow passengers to continue to travel. That challenge has not been successfully met at all times and commuters have faced considerable disruption as a result.
I have shared the frustration and anger that my constituents feel when they are unable to get to see their child’s play at school or get to pick-up on time, and when they are forced to stand uncomfortably in cramped conditions for long periods. In saying that there is an urgent need for performance to improve on Southern’s lines, I am not saying anything that has not already been said by Network Rail, Southern or the rail Minister, who has been a constant champion for my constituents, and without whom things would be much worse.
I have some specific asks for my constituents. Rightly there has been much focus on the London commuter lines, but I also have a coastal line, which runs from Brighton through to Ashford using diesel trains. It is vital as it connects Bexhill to London Victoria. The public performance measure on this line is currently a poor 65%. Even when services are running to time, it currently takes approximately two hours to make that journey. A similar distance, from London to Milton Keynes, can be travelled in just over 30 minutes. My constituency neighbour, my right hon. Friend Amber Rudd—the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change—and I are campaigning to extend High Speed 1 from Ashford down to Hastings and Bexhill. That would reduce the Bexhill to London journey time to 78 minutes and unlock the economic growth that we need locally if we are to become self-reliant with respect to business rates.
We very much hope that Network Rail will build on the Government’s commitment to deliver that line and include electrification in the next control period. Until such time, we are looking for Southern to take advantage of new technology to expand the carriages from the present two-car train. We understand that there is a lack of diesel rolling stock, but we also believe that there is now technology that allows mobile batteries to be put under trains, which would allow some excess electric stock to be added to the diesel stock until proper electrification occurs. Passengers are suffering from over-cramped conditions, so rather than taking what should be a scenic route along the coast to get to work or school, or to enjoy recreation, they are using their cars instead. All that this new technology needs is a delivery order. We hope that Southern and the Department for Transport will work together to permit an order to be made.
My second ask is to get better transparency to show how much of the money generated by Southern goes back into its rail network. This franchise is required to pay all its fares to the Department for Transport. With passenger growth being such a success and with 23% of all UK rail traffic operating on this franchise, the receipts have been coming in. In England, the Government subsidy on rail is £1.88 per passenger journey; in Wales it is £9.18. As it is our constituents who suffer the consequences of overcrowding that rail growth has delivered, it would be more tolerable for them to know how much their lines will receive in order to deliver a more comfortable and reliable journey.
My final ask is for an update on the continuous liaison that Network Rail and Southern undertake to avoid or mitigate infrastructure failure.
On my hon. Friend’s point about subsidy, my understanding is that this particular line is a negative subsidy area, meaning that it subsidises other passengers in England. The figure that he should be quoting is a negative one, which obviously adds to the frustration and unfairness that all our constituents feel.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. The figure I gave was for England as a whole, but his intervention encapsulates the point that our constituents have felt the pain caused by rail growth and it would be good to see them get the upside from future investment. It is also important that our constituents can see these data, so that they can believe that better times are around the corner.
The rail Minister has championed the cause that I have just outlined, and I am grateful for the manner in which she has sought to bring these organisations together. However, the recent ice on the lines issue appeared to suggest a breakdown of communication between Network Rail and our rail operators on
In conclusion, I recognise the challenges that Southern faces. Some of them are a result of the huge Government investment in engineering and station redevelopment work. However, the constituents in Sussex must receive the better travelling environment that their forbearance deserves.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.
Right hon. and hon. Members will be correct in thinking that nobody has contacted me about this issue. [Laughter.] Actually, that is not true. The only people who have contacted me about it are in this room, and they did so because I am a member of the Transport Committee.
When I was asked to sum up for the Scottish National party on this issue, aside from thinking, “Be still this beating heart”, I had a look through our party’s conference minutes over decades and decades, and I could find no policy on the performance of Govia Thameslink, so I will not take up too much time today.
My predecessor as the Member for Glasgow South, Tom Harris, who is a former rail Minister and a transport enthusiast, once told me that the current rail Minister has the best job in Government. However, having listened to all these complaints about this service today, I am yet to be convinced that that is the case.
I invite all Members who have taken part in this debate to come to my constituency to see the fantastic Cathcart circle, which is much loved, not only by Mr Harris but by another of my predecessors, Sir Teddy Taylor, who I understand opened Cathcart station when it was refurbished.
The final thing I will do today is congratulate Jeremy Quin on raising this issue. I have heard much about the problems with this line since I became a Member of Parliament. He has championed his constituents’ interests, as indeed have all Members who have spoken today.
I will end by doing something I never thought I would do, which is thanking Tony Blair for the fact that the railways are devolved in Scotland.
It is indeed an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I, too, congratulate Jeremy Quin on securing this important debate, and I also congratulate hon. Members from all parties on articulating their case so well. This railway line has been described as the “misery line” and “the line from hell”, and given hon. Members’ accounts of it one can readily understand why.
The question of railway performance and effective working relationships between railway operators and Network Rail is very much the order of the day. Indeed, this very day we will digest the long-awaited Shaw report into the future of Network Rail. I must confess that my journeys into London from 250 miles away sound a lot more efficient and comfortable than the journeys endured by hon. Members from all parties in the House. It has been said that what Network Rail needs are the right people with the right plan. Hopefully they will start to emerge, but then it is about the delivery of what passengers want, as opposed to ripping things up and starting again. We await the recommendations of the Shaw report with great interest.
Today, however, we are dealing with the current very sorry state of affairs on the biggest franchise that has ever been let, which is the combined Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern, or TSGN, franchise. It covers an enormous territory, centring as it does on our ever-growing capital city, and ranging from King’s Lynn in the far north-east—it is all relative, if that is the “far north-east” for this franchise—to Milton Keynes in the north-west, to Southampton and Portsmouth in the south-west, through to Horsham and to Hastings and Maidstone in the south-east. It takes in the connections to Gatwick airport and, ultimately, converges on central London and some of our very busiest mainline stations, including London Bridge, which has been the focus of such significant complaints in recent times.
I will get straight to it and say that this was undoubtedly an ambitious franchise when it was let in 2014. Although I do not wish to diminish by one jot the considerable concerns that Members have, a very significant amount of disruption was always going to be involved with such a major project. One of the major concerns that have arisen—I hope that the Minister will address it—is the extent to which there has been sufficient honesty with the travelling public about the correctly predicted diminution in the standards of service for the duration of the works, and whether that assessment has been made and properly communicated to passengers. We have heard of people being, on the face of it, deliberately misled.
There has to be a degree of accuracy and honesty about what is achievable. Failing to highlight adequately the difficulties that such major undertakings present, and not communicating all of that to the travelling public, serves only to increase dissatisfaction and dash high hopes and expectations. In addition, given the performance issues that have arisen since the franchise was let, questions arise about whether those performance issues ought to have been better identified before the start of the franchise. I therefore ask the Minister to set out what measures are being taken to address those matters and to say what lessons can be learned, especially in the context of the equally ambitious plans for Waterloo station and Euston, which are a consequence of our decision to proceed with High Speed 2. In short, we do not want to see a repeat of the difficulties encountered at London Bridge at other major rail hubs.
I say the franchise was rightly ambitious, because at its heart was a major infrastructure scheme to vastly improve capacity and performance. To that end, London Bridge is undergoing a major reconstruction and transformation, and I believe that work is expected to be completed by 2018. Among many other things, those works will facilitate 12-car Thameslink trains and a new station concourse to improve passenger circulation, which is currently very badly disrupted.
The network is characterised by increased passenger numbers and overcrowding, and significant safety concerns have been outlined, which should alarm us all.
However, the outfall in addressing these issues cannot be underestimated. TSGN’s ability to get trains running to timetable is not good. The percentage of franchise trains arriving at their destination on time stands at 81.7%, compared with the industry average of 89.3%. While that is an improvement from 76% and 79% in the previous two years, it still means that nearly one in every five trains do not arrive on time. Judging from the accounts of hon. Members today, it sounds as if those late trains can be clustered together in much higher ratios.
The “right time performance measure” measures arrival time against trains arriving early or within 59 seconds of schedule. Network Rail says that it is not an entirely reliable measure, but in any event it currently tells the sorry story of a compliance rate of only 52.6%, against the industry average of 64.8%. That means that nearly half of TSGN trains do not arrive within 59 seconds of schedule. Given the experiences that have been outlined today, that proportion of late trains may be significantly more than 59 seconds out of its schedule. Similarly, the record on cancellations and significant lateness is 5.3%, against an industry average of 3%. That is a poor reflection, and that feeds through into customer satisfaction.
It is perhaps no surprise that the common factor in the low passenger satisfaction rates in the three bottom-ranked operators—Thameslink, Southern and Southeastern —is the shared line into London Bridge. It seems that passenger flows in and around London Bridge station may not have been correctly predicted. Does the Minister agree with that observation? Can any lessons be learned on the modelling of such matters? Will she comment on the specific measures that might be taken to improve the flow of passengers, given the establishment of the rail reparation fund for TSGN passengers? That was set up in December 2015 and is worth £4.1 million.
In August 2015 serious weaknesses were found by the regulator in the data used to settle new timetables. Network Rail was found to have overestimated the impact of those timetable changes on performance. It seems that there has been insufficient communication between Network Rail and the operators to accurately identify just what impact the new timetables would have. Will the Minister consider whether and how that process might have been better managed and look into additional mitigating measures that could be taken to ameliorate the adverse impacts? There have been issues surrounding the numbers of train drivers, and we have heard that it is not simply that people are failing to turn up—insufficient numbers have been recruited. There is an issue about platform availability during the major works. Will she comment on that?
Efforts are being made to address to some degree the concerns expressed this afternoon, but I look forward to securing some assurances from the Minister that steps will be taken as a matter of urgency to improve the passenger experience in the franchise ahead of what will, I hope, be an entirely happier story come the completion of the works and the introduction of new services in 2018.
A point was made about the sanctions that might be applied to the operator if it fails to abide by the terms of the franchise. Will the Minister give some assurance that, notwithstanding the change to the structure of
Of course, when the east coast main line was returned to the public sector for five years, it made a surplus of something like £1 billion for the Treasury, and during that time it ran a very good service.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. While that was an excellent turnaround from a pretty dire situation, if this particular franchise is, as Members have outlined, so poor that it demands intervention, my concern is that we should still retain the capacity to do that. Given the recent changes to the DOR—it is no longer in the same form—I am concerned that it would not assist at all. Will the Minister address that point?
Will the Minister also address the pertinent issue of electronic ticketing? Members have correctly identified and highlighted the benefits that could be secured from an intelligent roll-out of electronic ticketing. Those benefits relate to access not only to fair fares, but to refunds. I understand that although several tens of millions of pounds was spent trying to progress that agenda, it has come to a shuddering halt and has simply been handed over to the operators.
The Minister disagrees. I am enquiring, so perhaps she can enlighten and correct me. A number of Members have clearly made that reasonable demand on electronic ticketing, and it seems eminently sensible. We want to know what happened to that investment and how it will be progressed.
Finally, I was heartened to hear many Members from across the territory express, on behalf of their constituents, the need for proper staffing levels to be maintained in our railway stations. Many people spoke about difficulties in accessing ticket machines and computer systems. Often that was beyond their capabilities, whether because of information technology illiteracy, learning difficulties or other issues. That strong message came from Members’ contributions today. Will the Minister comment on how we can secure those reassurances that all members of the travelling public need? They need to see that human interface, and sadly it is clearly lacking in the operation of the franchise.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. You are always a fount of rail-related humour. I join in congratulating my hon. Friend Jeremy Quin on securing a very important debate, which we must not shy away from continuing. Members have been very kind about what my Department and I are doing, but we are simply reflecting the concerns of Members and the constituents they serve. It is imperative that we sort the issue out. As Andy McDonald said, with many more investment projects to happen, we have to learn lessons and ensure that this level of disruption does not happen again.
There was very little that I disagree with in what was said today. We know that performance on this part of the network in the franchise—it carries almost a quarter of all rail passengers every day—is simply not good enough, whether in punctuality, reliability, customer satisfaction or the way people feel they are being treated. A lot of points have been raised today, and I will try to address as many as possible in my closing remarks, but if I do not get to everyone’s, please be assured that I have instructed my officials to take notes and to write specifically in response. It is important, on Budget day no less, to have so many hon. and right hon. Members prepared to come to Westminster Hall to make passionate and compelling cases. We need to keep working collectively on this issue.
I will step through the three root causes of problems on the lines, which I think Members know, and then I will talk a little about what is changing and where more needs to be done. The first root cause—my hon. Friend Dr Offord made the point compellingly—is that there is a very big improvement project going on with Thameslink and what that entails and the London Bridge reconstruction. It is not just London Bridge, though; Blackfriars is a beautiful station and a wonderful addition to our landscape, and it opened almost without fanfare. We will be unpicking the north-south lines through London and under the Thames so that the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham will be able to take a direct train straight through to Peterborough or points in between and access other train journeys. Moreover, they will be able to do so on a brand new fleet of trains, which will start to roll out in the next few months.
I was delighted to welcome the first of the new fleet of Gatwick Express trains. They are purpose-built for people travelling to and from the airport. The first is in operation, and the others will be up and running by the summer. That is tangible evidence of improvement. It is a big package of untangling lines that have not been touched properly in many years, putting in new stations, driving new train paths and providing customers with a much better travelling environment. That is a prize worth having. When London Bridge is open, all the platforms are returned to full capacity and we have many more trains with the ability to take many more passengers, some of the immediate issues will undoubtedly be solved.
The Minister mentioned Gatwick Express. I saw the brand new trains, which are fitted with wi-fi. I gather that she is in negotiations with Govia Thameslink Railway about upgrading existing rolling stock with wi-fi so that at least our commuting constituents stuck on trains going nowhere can get on with some work while they are delayed. Will she ensure that that happens as a matter of urgency?
I am happy to confirm again that I have committed to roll out free wi-fi in all classes of train travel across England by 2018. Trains coming on to the franchises will be fitted with wi-fi as a matter of course, and trains that are already running will be retrofitted.
I hope constituents who are not stuck on trains for longer than their train times will also be able to do some productive work. Wi-fi is an important addition to the landscape.
We always knew it would be tough with London Bridge and Thameslink. Despite what some might say is long-term disruption on the line and fare changes, we have seen incredible amounts of growth on the railway. In fact, travel from Horsham, for example, is up 40% in the past 10 years, so more and more people are getting on trains right across the country. Frankly, successive Governments have neglected to invest in infrastructure. We have all ducked our collective responsibility to invest in trains to get people moving effectively and efficiently around the country. It is vital that we keep the investment programmes growing, because we are now seeing some of the problems associated with passenger growth on lines that have not been invested in.
Underlying all that is a problem that is a little more sinister: even when Thameslink is running—when all the trains are rolling, the system looks great and the stations are open—we still have persistent, daily failures of the infrastructure the trains are running over. Our constituents do not care whose fault it is, and nor should they—that is my job, or at least my Department’s—but around 60% of delays are the result of infrastructure failures such as points failing, signals failing or other things going wrong. That is intolerable. Not only is it intolerable on a daily basis, but the Thameslink programme, which will deliver 24 trains an hour through the centre of London, north to south, will not be able to operate unless those infrastructure problems are sorted out.
The focus for my Department has been working together with Network Rail and the operators, including Southeastern, but I am afraid there is no magic bullet. There is no one thing we can all do. It is about a relentless focus on the day-to-day details of running a railway; and ensuring that, in the morning, trains come out of the depot on time to the second, and that, if there is a problem, it is fixed in the minimum amount of time. People may ask, “Surely that’s just railway 101—why hasn’t it happened?” Of course, it has happened, but the problem is that, under both public and private ownership, the customers have not mattered enough.
Members might be surprised to hear that no measure of lost customer time has ever existed on our railways, other than briefly on the London underground. That is inexcusable. My hon. Friend the Member for Horsham made the valid point that it is the human cost of failure that is so hard, as well as the productivity loss of making millions of people late, day in, day out. We have a record programme of investment in transport infrastructure—it was added to in the Budget today, which I welcome—and it is being done to drive up the productivity of the country, but nobody has ever captured the productivity loss from not running the trains on time. Members will be pleased to hear that I am devoting considerable time to that. I want the volume of people being carried on that part of the railway to really count, so that when infrastructure programmes need to be sorted out, there is even more emphasis on sorting them out. We are absolutely committed to doing that collectively.
Many Members raised driver shortages, which is a historical problem for the franchise. It has been run on a shoestring, with the number of drivers about 6% or 7% below what was required. That sounds like a small difference, but, on a very busy railway, if one driver is not there to run one train, there is an infection of delay right across the network. On its current recruitment plans, which are the biggest in the country, GTR will reach the minimum level—the operational level—in August this year. We have asked it to go further than that by recruiting more so that there is resilience in the system, and it is on track to do that. That is vital.
Several Members made important points about ticketing offices and smart ticketing. A consultation on ticket office changes is going on. Nothing can happen without the Department’s say-so. The future of travel in this country is not orange bits of paper but digital ticketing information being delivered to us through whatever device we choose. In some cases, that might be a bar code printed out on a piece of paper, although as Kelvin Hopkins said, many customers like to buy a ticket from a person, or at least have some interaction.
We have already invested more than £30 million in the south-east flexible ticketing programme, and there are tens of millions of pounds of further commitment to come. That money has been invested to ensure that the franchises, of which GTR is the flagship, can implement the technology, have the back office and gate their stations so that the Key card—the smart card system—can work. If the Key card system were working, there might be an argument for getting people out from behind ticket office counters and on to the front lines, but I will commit today to having a deep-dive conversation with my officials and the franchise so that we can get to grips with where it is on the roll-out of the Key card and how that relates to ticket office closing hours. If we are going to do smart ticketing, let us do it right.
I congratulate Jeremy Quin on securing this debate. The Minister is right that the Budget debate is ongoing; I want to take this opportunity to say that we in Streatham welcome the green light being given to Crossrail 2, but we want it to come to Streatham.
On ticket offices, it is totally and utterly unacceptable that the three stations in my constituency affected by the franchise will be losing more than 13 staff. It is all well and good telling people to go to the machine, but the problem is that the machines are not giving people the best prices that they are entitled to.
To be clear to the hon. Gentleman, the proposal is to do what Transport for London has done very successfully: train us all to use a reliable alternative system and then take people out and put them on the gate lines to help us. That is 21st century travel and I support it, and I hope he does too. I am afraid he will have to join the queue for lobbying on Crossrail locations.
In the two minutes my hon. Friend the Minister has remaining, will she say how the franchise is going to be held to account for its failure to deliver the performance expected?
I was just about to address some of the specific questions. The franchise has been fined more than £2 million for cancellations and the short formations that it has put on the service. That money will be spent on passenger-facing benefits. I am very keen that the money that comes in—the hon. Member for Middlesbrough mentioned the £4.1 million of reparations—is spent to directly benefit customers on this line. Additional proposals on that will be forthcoming.
I was asked at what point we do something radically different. Do we take the franchise back? Do we change? The truth is that this is an exceptionally busy, very difficult franchise to run. In my view, nobody out there could do a better job than the current management team, but we have to ensure that there is a relentless focus on the customer. It is inexcusable that the wrong communications are given. It is inexcusable that delays happen or trains are going in the wrong direction. That is customer relationship management 101. We expect the private sector to deliver on that.
In closing, I will always happily welcome debates on this matter, because they strengthen the resolve of us all in getting to grips with some of the underlying problems of running a franchise in the busiest part of the country. Our debates are helping to inform wider changes throughout the industry, such as the relentless focus on customers. With this Government’s record level of investment in transport, we will have to have these conversations in future, whether about Euston or Manchester’s stations.
I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister’s remarks about a relentless focus on the customer. As my hon. Friends the Members for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) and for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) teased out, the lines we are discussing subsidise the rest of the national network. It is right that there should be a relentless focus on customers throughout the network, but the service on this franchise is particularly galling. When I mentioned to one of my hon. Friends that I had secured this debate, he said it was good because it would enable him to let off some steam on the grounds that he had simply run out of adjectives to describe to his constituents the performance of the franchise.
I am grateful to the Minister for saying that she will not shy away from more debates on this matter, although it is our sincere hope that this will be the last debate we need on it. My right hon. Friend Nick Herbert quoted the performance improvement plan of a year ago, which said:
“You will notice real improvements from now onwards”.
That is what we want to see, and I know that the Minister does too.
I recognise the huge increase in the number of passengers, and the huge increase in investment in the line to cope with it. We need that relentless focus on customers, and I welcome the fact that the Minister is looking into a measure of lost customer time and lost productivity. It is extraordinary that one has never existed. In my opening speech, I asked for Network Rail to be genuinely held to account for passengers’ experience. I welcome the fact that the Minister is clearly trying to achieve exactly that. I also welcome what she said about increasing driver numbers, but, as ever, as so many Members said, we want to see the outcomes, not the inputs, as she knows.
My hon. Friends the Members for Hendon (Dr Offord) and for Crawley (Henry Smith), along with Kelvin Hopkins, made eloquent points about ticket office closures, which I believe are wrong and hasty. The consultation process has been too short. I implore those responsible to think again.
I welcome what the Minister said about a deep dive with her officials on the subject of electronic ticketing, which was mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Reigate and for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat). We need to work out what can be taken from electronic ticketing. Above all, we must make certain that there is accountability on the service. That was the Minister’s theme, and I am grateful to have heard it. I look forward to her continuing to pressure these companies in the months ahead.
Motion lapsed (