I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the Sixth Report from the Transport Committee of Session 2016-17, The future of rail: Improving the rail passenger experience, HC 64, and the Government Response, HC 905.
It is a pleasure, Sir Edward, to serve under your chairmanship.
Our inquiry into improving the rail passenger experience started early last year, as the second of a series of five investigations into the future of rail. We have also looked at rail technology and rail franchising; we are currently considering rail safety; and we will complete our rail inquiries by looking at rail finance and governance.
There is no doubt that the number of people travelling by train has increased dramatically, which is a real success story, but what of the passenger experience? Examining this issue means examining some pretty basic issues. How easy is it to find and purchase the best-value ticket? How crowded is the train? Are there enough seats? How clearly is information presented on websites and apps? Are staff available to assist people at the station and reassure passengers about safety? How well does the train company keep passengers informed about disruption during the journey? Most fundamentally of all, will the train be on time? Will it be on time to the station to which the individual passenger is travelling and not simply on time at its final destination? We identified many improvements that are required, and the need for some of them is very long-standing.
Let us consider the first aspect—looking for and buying the best-value ticket for a journey. The sheer complexity of ticketing, with different types of tickets across the patchwork of operators, has been an issue for far too long. Ten years ago, the Transport Committee described the complexity in rail fares as an “insult to the passenger”. In 2006, the Transport Committee decried the fact that the situation had been allowed to persist for several years. Yet last year we found that this fundamental problem had barely been dealt with and that the situation had barely changed, beyond some very small improvements. Some improvements to ticket vending machines had taken place, for example, but they were small improvements in comparison with the scale of the problem. Despite in-depth research by consumer groups and numerous pronouncements by the regulator—the Office of Rail and Road—and the industry, the problem persists.
A particularly unfair phenomenon is split ticketing. It is often possible for passengers who have the knowledge and time to undertake intricate research to save considerable sums of money by buying separate tickets for different portions of the same journey. It was possible to save money through split ticketing on 33 of 50 cross-country journeys that were examined by The Times last year, when it conducted a survey on this problem. This situation is unsatisfactory and unfair. People can pay as much as £85 more than is necessary for a single train journey, for example on the service from Penzance to Birmingham. There is a differential of £85 if someone buys split tickets rather than just buying one ticket. Further examples can be found on numerous routes.
Despite the problem having been well understood for a long time, no one in the rail sector appears to have a grip on it and no one seems to be responsible for dealing with it. The Transport Committee has been told on numerous occasions by a succession of Ministers that this issue will be dealt with, but nothing has happened and nobody seems to have the power to enforce any change.
Recently the Department for Transport, together with the Rail Delivery Group and the regulator, published a plan to deal with these issues; it contained proposals in December about certain trials that were to take place. It is unclear how effective this plan will be and we still do not know the full details of what these trials will be and where they will take place. I assure the Minister that, as a Committee, we will follow this matter up. It is good to have a plan, but we need to know exactly what it is, how effective it is and—if it is effective—how it would be rolled out across the system.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Given that there are some extremely good websites out there—I have personal experience of using seat61.com and loco2.com—it is possible, quite straightforwardly, for someone to work out good rail routes, if they have access to a computer. So, given that it is possible, why does it seem so difficult for the Government and the train companies to resolve this issue, and what about those people who do not have access to a computer?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. If somebody has the time, the knowledge, the ability and the access to the appropriate technology, they can discover a lot of information, but it is not available to everyone, and I find it very surprising that Ministers and the rail sector as a whole are simply unable to take up this issue and ensure that information that is technically available is actually available to the ordinary passenger. That is where my concern lies and where the Committee’s concern lies.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate, which my constituents will follow with great interest. Does she agree that it is also important that passengers are able to buy any sort of ticket, particularly at unstaffed stations, and that one of the urgent priorities is to make sure that ticket machines are put in place in all those stations where no staff are present, including those on the line through Urmston and Trafford Park, many of which do not have such machines?
My hon. Friend makes another excellent point. There is nothing more frustrating for a passenger than to be told that tickets are available, only to go along to their local station and find that that simply is not the case. I say again that this is a long-standing issue. It is known about, Ministers are well aware of it, but very little indeed has been done to resolve it. My hon. Friend has done a great service to her constituents in drawing attention to this issue during this debate.
Rail passengers want clear and accurate information about their journeys. They want information not only on how to go about their journey and what sorts of journeys are available but on how a journey is progressing. Too often, however, that information is simply not being provided.
When we conducted our inquiry and called for evidence, it came flooding in and we saw that passengers were largely negative, first about their experience of train operating companies’ websites. One such website was described by a passenger as being
“appalling, badly designed, inefficient, difficult to use, often to the point of being unusable”.
Some smartphone apps seem little better, as they routinely failed to provide reliable information, for example about which platform a train will depart from. Once again, that is basic information and it is galling for passengers to read reports about systems being put in place, which can all sound very good. What really matters is what happens to an individual when they make their journey. That is what really counts.
It is important that the technology is available and accessible, but it is also important that people are actually at hand in stations to give assistance and information. That help is essential for everybody—travellers want to see actual people around who can help them, and give them guidance and information—but for people who have a disability it is absolutely essential. Although the systems in place for assisting people with disabilities to travel by train sometimes work, there are also occasions when those systems break down, which is another great concern for us.
Overcrowding is another ongoing concern. It does not happen everywhere, but where it does happen it is extremely important and creates major obstacles. Many people told us that their journeys were uncomfortable. They often worried about whether they could actually get on the train. Many were concerned about the potential danger in getting on very crowded trains, and that is stressful.
My hon. Friend is being generous with her time. I had an email recently from a constituent who is trained in first aid and who was concerned about a journey from Birmingham to Wolverhampton; she and others were standing and somebody fainted so she went to provide assistance. There was not space for the person to lie down, as is required when giving first aid to someone who has fainted. When the train crew got on, they said, “This happens regularly, because the train is so regularly crowded. We are used to people passing out.”
My hon. Friend draws attention to a situation that is all too common. If there is sporadic overcrowding, that can perhaps be coped with, but when it happens regularly, it requires attention and the situation is not being addressed. A great deal of the publicity about overcrowding relates to commuter lines into London, and that is where most of the overcrowding takes place, but it does not solely affect London. There is overcrowding on other routes, too. In Manchester, rush-hour trains are on average 4% over capacity, with 12% of passengers regularly standing. That is a lot of people, and average figures mask a lot of difference. The top 10 overcrowded train services in England and Wales are between 61% and 129% over capacity. Eight of the 10 most overcrowded services are in the London area, with two in Manchester, but there are examples throughout the country. This issue needs attention and it must not be ignored.
Thank you, Sir Edward. The Department is well aware of this long-standing problem. It must identify places where overcrowding has become a persistent serious problem, making journeys uncomfortable. The train companies, through the franchise agreements negotiated with the Department, should be required to identify where there is a serious problem and take action to alleviate overcrowding on specific services. I hope that the Minister will confirm that he is looking at the problem and is proposing action to address it.
Over the past day or two, there has been a lot of discussion about the consultation on the Southeastern franchise, which has rightly raised the big issue of overcrowding. The consultation puts forward certain proposals for dealing with the issue, but it is not a problem just for new franchises; the problem is being experienced now, and it requires the Department’s attention. It relates to the train operating companies and the provision of rolling stock.
I repeat the question that I have asked a succession of Ministers numerous times in a succession of meetings: who is responsible for the long-term planning and delivery of rolling stock? That might sound like a pretty basic, simple, fundamental question, but I have never received a straightforward answer; the nearest I have got is something about “the Department”. I then ask, “Who is it in the Department? The Minister? The Secretary of State?” Then the clarity disappears.
When we come across specific issues and problems—there was one a couple of years ago when a carriage was moved from an important service in the north to go to the then Prime Minister’s constituency—Ministers appear to be powerless. I was told by the then Secretary of State, “It will get resolved.” It did get resolved, in the end and after a great deal of fuss, but I still had no answer to the question of who was actually responsible. The Minister is very diligent about these matters, so I hope he will be able to give a clearer answer. Who is responsible for the long-term planning and delivery of rolling stock, including new rolling stock and refurbishment?
People are facing a whole range of problems in undertaking their journeys on rail. Perhaps one constant feature, which overrides other rail issues, is the constant challenge of the rail system’s fragmentation. Time and again we come back to the issue of how the sector will work together more cohesively to give the best possible service to the passenger.
The Rail Delivery Group was set up to bring the rail sector together. Yes, it has made some improvements, but it has not addressed the basic issues. How will it change the way it operates? Does it need more powers? Do franchises need to be different? Should the Department and Ministers act in a different way? How can the rail regulator be more effective in taking action? That is not clear. Does the regulator need more powers? If so, what are they? What action does the Minister propose to take to make that a reality? The most disappointing thing about the challenges that the Committee and I have identified is that most of them are not new: they are long-standing. Despite the best efforts of a succession of Ministers and the Department, not a great deal has changed, and we simply cannot go on like that.
As our inquiry was under way, a major crisis was developing on Southern rail, which is part of the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise. It is run by the parent company, Govia Thameslink Railway —known as GTR—but I will refer to it as Southern, because that is the area in which the bulk of the problems have arisen and where the bulk of the difficulties are for passengers.
As we were conducting our inquiry, passengers on the route were becoming increasingly exasperated and angry that their rail service, for which many pay several thousand pounds a year, was inadequate and utterly unreliable. Whether passengers are paying several thousand pounds a year for a season ticket or simply paying their fare, they are equally entitled to have a proper service, but that was not happening. The situation remains virtually the same, with passengers suffering mass cancellations and inordinate delays. People’s jobs have been put at risk, simply because they cannot get to work on time. Some people reported that they have moved house because of the problem.
Life has been disrupted. Why? It is a sorry combination of a too-large franchise, poor management, misjudgment and disastrous industrial relations, which have conspired to create an appalling situation for passengers. The ongoing strikes have compounded a series of errors and incompetence. Passengers are right to be angry, but the Department does not seem to be doing much about the situation except to accept that there is a big problem.
It cannot be acceptable for those responsible for the problem—not just one party is responsible; responsibility must be shared by a multiplicity of organisations and individuals—to fail so comprehensively and for so long and to appear not to be acting. In 2016 alone, 58,983 train journeys were partly or wholly cancelled. That is a tremendous figure. I do not think the travelling public want to hear all the arguments about who is responsible. They just know that it is a fact that their lives are still being disrupted and that nothing much is changing, and they want something done about it.
The Department has already accepted that the franchise that was drawn up was much too large. It is the largest in the country. It is uniquely large; it contains more than a fifth of all the passenger journeys across Britain’s entire network. It is too large a franchise, and the Department has said that that was its mistake.
Add to that the situation on the ground and the complexity of major infrastructure works planned during the course of the franchise agreement, including the huge and logistically challenging Thameslink programme, and there was a recipe for calamitous passenger experience. The impact of the Thameslink programme on passenger services was substantially underestimated. The estimated number of delay minutes was forecast to be 10,000 per year; the reality has been 10,000 per week. I ask the Minister how that estimate could be so disastrously wrong. It has contributed substantially to the problem.
If we add to those things—too large a franchise and a major infrastructure challenge, the impact of which was grossly underestimated—inadequate levels of staffing, the situation becomes even worse. The industrial action on top of that has escalated the situation to an unacceptable level.
I mention one other factor; I suspect hon. Members will find it difficult to believe if they are not already aware of it. At the very beginning of the franchise, the company did not have enough drivers to operate the trains. That part has been rectified—except for the fact that we are now in a dispute about driver-only operation—but having insufficient drivers at the beginning of the franchise does not suggest great competence.
The question for the Department and the Minister to answer is: what is being done? The franchise was constructed on a management fee basis, which is currently unique, because of the anticipated risk. The revenues go directly to the Government and a fee is paid to the train operator, so there is no risk in that sense. I have described the nature of the services and the problems. The train operator receives an annual management fee of around £1 billion; probably around £3 billion has been paid out to date. Under that system, the public purse foots the bill for losses that occur from lost sales, disruption and passenger compensation.
I do not have an up-to-date figure of exactly how much has been lost and how much the public purse will have to pay out, but the latest figure I have is £38 million and rising. That was supplied by the Minister in a letter to me some time ago. Compensation schemes have been announced since then, and we do not know how they are operating or how much money is involved. The bill could be increasing substantially.
To add to the complexity and difficulty, there is the issue of force majeure, which concerns the dispute—ongoing and unresolved, as far as I am aware—between the train operating company and the Department for Transport about who is responsible for all those cancelled services. Who is responsible for those 58,983 and more train journeys that were wholly or partly cancelled? There is an unresolved dispute between the Department and the train company, with no end date in sight. That cannot be acceptable. All this is continuing—passengers are getting more and more angry, and there is no end date. I hope the Minister can tell us what is happening and when it will be resolved. The public also have a right to know what the Department’s plans are to deal with the situation.
The franchise is due to run until September 2021. I would not like to anticipate the extent or the level of anger that passengers are going to be feeling by then if nothing changes. What is the Department doing? Is it considering restructuring the franchise—perhaps dividing it up and allocating different parts to different operators? There is silence. We simply do not know what is happening. Doing nothing is simply not enough.
My hon. Friend is highlighting well-publicised problems at Southern Rail. She will know that, in the last few weeks, a similar dispute began with Northern Rail, which serves both her constituency and mine. Does she agree that Ministers need to take action swiftly so that we do not end up in the long drawn-out and unresolved situation with Northern Rail that passengers have had to suffer at Southern Rail? Will she call on the Minister to tell us what swift action the Government are taking?
I agree with my hon. Friend. The issue is escalating and is now not solely to do with Southern Rail. I hope the Minister is able to tell us what he and the Department are doing to deal with this unacceptable situation. However blame is apportioned, it is the passengers who are suffering.
I thank the Minister for certain steps that he has taken in relation to Southern Rail, which have an impact on the rest of the rail network. The Committee was extremely concerned to find that the Department was not making information available about its monitoring of the franchise and whether contractual benchmarks were being met. After a lot of pressure from the Committee, the Minister agreed that that information would be made publicly available as far as it could be—not simply for Southern Rail, but across the network for other franchises.
I thank the Minister for responding to our concerns so swiftly when he realised their extent, but I have to ask when that information will actually be made available, for Southern Rail and for franchises in the rest of the country. It is extremely important that the Department monitors franchises. Because of its failures, the situation in the Southern franchise has now reached dramatic proportions, but there are other issues in other parts of the rail network and the Department is equally responsible there. I would like some information on that monitoring.
I have dwelt at some length on what is happening at Southern Rail because it is such a traumatic, ongoing event, but also because some of its features can be applied in other areas. We have major infrastructure works planned for other parts of the network as well. Will the Minister ensure that the problems in miscalculations made in relation to infrastructure on Southern Rail will not be replicated in other parts of the country when major infrastructure works take place? That is a very important question.
It is important to go back to the beginning and ask how we know what passengers’ concerns are and whether we are monitoring them properly. The rail sector does have ways of monitoring passengers’ views. There is an annual rail passenger survey, and other things are done, but the Committee felt that they were not really adequate because some of the information that we picked up from passengers was not reflected in some of the official statistics that had been collected. I would ask that that whole system be looked at again.
Later in this Parliament, we will complete our “future of the rail” series of inquiries by looking at rail finance and governance, and how important changes should and can be implemented. I am in no doubt that the massive increase in the numbers of people using trains is a success story and I applaud many of the developments in our rail service. In many ways, it has been a success—but there are major problems and issues, and one is the passenger experience.
I have outlined some of the report’s findings today, and I thank all Committee members, a number of whom are here this afternoon, for their work and dedication. They looked at the issue as a whole and have drawn attention to their own individual information and experience from their role as constituency MPs. I thank them for that.
We are all working to secure one end: to bring improvements. I conclude by thanking the Minister for the attention he has already shown to some aspects of the issue. However, the Committee would like to know what else will be done so that passengers’ experience can be improved, on a growing and increasingly successful railway.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, as always, Sir Edward. I thank the Chairman of the Transport Committee, Mrs Ellman, for comprehensively summarising our inquiry. I would like to focus on two or three things and give one or two local examples from my constituency of the failure of both the services and the ticketing arrangements.
The hon. Lady spoke of the dispute on Southern. The only comment I want to add to that and to what is in the report is how amazing I find it that we were told by the two company representatives that there were not enough drivers to operate the services from day one, due to an unexpected fall in the number during the change-over of the franchises. They said that they did not know on day one, but surely they could not have been so incompetent not to have known on day one minus 10 or 20.
It is amazing that, on day one, the company should not have enough staff to operate the services they had committed to. I do not think we managed to tease this out of the Minister at the meeting—perhaps we did and my memory is failing me—but did the Department know that on day one the company could not provide the services it had contracted for?
The hon. Lady gave many examples relating to ticketing. We were told how complex it is because there are so many different routes and tickets, but that applies to many industries. Why are the ticketing arrangements on the railways so far behind the airlines, for example? They have speeded up their process, and it is now pretty easy to check in and get a ticket. I find it amazing that, after all this time and so many promises and reports, we are not able to ensure ease of operation.
The report is about the rail passenger experience, the first part of which is getting a ticket and getting information about train times. The hon. Lady gave an example of different websites giving a ticket price difference of £80. I did a bit of research this morning on how to get from my Cleethorpes constituency to Haverfordwest. Perhaps not a great many people do that journey, but I happen to have family in Haverfordwest and I have done it on a number of occasions. Amazingly enough, it can be done with only one change in Stockport.
I went on the National Rail website. National Rail sounds important, doesn’t it? People look at it and think, “This is the Rolls-Royce of websites.” Okay, it has got the information, but it is, shall we say, variable. When I tap in, “Cleethorpes to Haverfordwest”, the website says at the top, “Buy the cheapest for £157”. That is for a single adult standard class ticket.
Buying a ticket from Cleethorpes to Stockport costs £21. There are numerous fares at different times of the day to then go from Stockport to Haverfordwest, but I chose to leave Cleethorpes at 9.26. I was told that it would be £157, and that if I went 2 hours later it would be £163.80. If I go on the 9.26, I pay £21 to get to Stockport and £44.50 to get from Stockport to Haverfordwest. That is almost a £100 difference. If a family of three or four do that, let us be honest, they are being robbed—there is no getting away from it.
Having gone to south Wales, I thought, “I wonder whether it is cheaper to get to north Wales,” and I did a similar exercise going from Cleethorpes to Bangor; I accept that perhaps not many people do that on a daily basis. Again, I found that if the journey is done in three stages, it can be done for £56.20, whereas the headline says, “Cheapest fare £81.40.”
My final example is to get from Cleethorpes to Felixstowe, which again I found can be done £15 cheaper than what is stated at the top of the webpage—mind you, four tickets are necessary to do that, so perhaps the convenience makes it worth it. In this day and age, this is not rocket science. If the railway companies cannot do it themselves, somebody else should be made to do it on their behalf, and they should have to pay to have it done.
Obviously, I travel down here from Cleethorpes every week and back again, and I am always amazed at how many times my tickets are not checked. There are no ticket barriers at Cleethorpes or where I change at Doncaster, and at least 50% of the time the barriers at King’s Cross are not operational. I have done that journey time and again—I could have saved the taxpayers no end of money if I had just taken a chance on it, but we are all honest, aren’t we?
I totally support the hon. Gentleman’s comments about tickets not being checked. The situation is exacerbated when there is no machine on the station platform and no staff from whom one can buy a ticket. On my local line, passengers regularly travel between Urmston and Trafford Park, for example, without paying—not because they are not willing to pay, but because there is absolutely no way they can do so.
The hon. Lady is absolutely correct. Seeing you in the Chair, Sir Edward, reminds me of the journeys that can be made from Cleethorpes to Lincoln via Market Rasen. There is often an announcement on the 9.20 train from Grimsby to Lincoln saying, “This train will be overcrowded when we get to Market Rasen. Can we get the tickets sorted out quickly?”
That brings me to overcrowding. You have probably used that 9.20 train yourself, Sir Edward. It leaves Market Rasen at about 10 o’clock in the morning and delivers you to Lincoln or Newark, where you can get down to King’s Cross. The reality is that it is a single unit, and has been one for years and years, despite the fact that it is regularly overcrowded when it leaves Market Rasen.
Absolutely, and the same is true on the train that runs through Stoke-on-Trent on the Crewe-Derby line. It is a single unit and overcrowded, but nothing has been done for years. Nobody seems to care.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. As the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside said, there is even a top 10 of overcrowding. I do not know whether the Market Rasen service is on it, but it certainly ought to be. The reality is that it is a single unit. East Midlands Trains will say, as it has said to me, “There isn’t enough rolling stock available, even when it cascades down after new stock has come on,” but that has been the case for 10 years. How long does it take to produce a new diesel unit to run that service?
If trains are regularly overcrowded, notwithstanding the fact that the rail experience is not particularly desirable from the passenger’s point of view, surely the companies are falling down on the commitments they made in their franchises. If they are not falling down on their commitments, the franchise agreements need tightening up.
Finally—the Minister would not expect me not to mention this issue; we have spoken about it on many occasions—the rail experience is much better if people do not have to change trains and there are through services. British Rail ended through services from Cleethorpes to King’s Cross in 1992, and it is about time they were restored.
I know the Minister is sympathetic and that you, Sir Edward, are sympathetic, because you would like through services to go through Market Rasen and Lincoln as they used to. It is about time that the Minister made some more sympathetic noises and guided me through the system, so that in the not-too-distant future—preferably before the next general election—we have an absolute commitment to provide such a service.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mrs Ellman on her introduction to the report and the Government response. I came on to the Committee part way through the investigation, but I feel a certain amount of ownership because in my previous life on the Select Committee I was involved in the 2006 report. I am dismayed to be back here still debating exactly the same things we raised in our report all that time ago.
Before the 1997 general election I went to an event attended by the comedian and satirist John Bird, back when rail privatisation was still in its fledgling years. He said that the rail operating companies had given up calling people “passengers” because they did not want to give them the idea that they had any intention of taking them anywhere. People served by Southern and Southeastern —my constituents are served by Southeastern—get the impression that nothing at all has changed since. Things have not moved on.
The passenger experience is at the heart of what we should be seeking to achieve in our railways. It is not satisfactory to say that the railways must be a success because so many more people are travelling on them. People travelling on Southern, for example, do so because they have no alternative but to suffer the service they are being offered. After all, there are few alternatives for getting to work other than to suffer that service.
The poor performance of Southern and Southeastern is exacerbated by the development taking place at London Bridge. I commend the railway industry for keeping London Bridge operating while such an incredible feat of engineering is taking place—to add two additional lines through so busy a station while keeping much of it operating is quite an achievement—but that does not excuse the frequency with which my constituents are inconvenienced because the infrastructure has broken down, whether it is a set of points at Charing Cross, London Bridge or Lewisham, as is frequently the case, or a train that is blocking the rail. That is too often the experience of the customer.
Recently, quite late one evening, coming back from the House, I was at Waterloo East and the trains were all delayed—I cannot remember whether it was a train or the points on that occasion. A woman standing next to me shouted across to the central platforms of the station, trying to get some information from the staff about how she could get to the station that she wanted to get to. They were holding their hands to their ears, trying to hear what she was saying, then a train trundled between them and stopped at the platform. The woman sauntered off down the platform and the train left, while the staff kept talking to each other on the other platform. The impression was that the staff were so beaten down by the quality of the service that they had given up making any attempt to assist passengers.
There is something in that about the quality of the customer interface; the interaction of staff and passengers who have been inconvenienced. That needs to be addressed and the Government should hold the train operating companies to account for it. It is not good enough to collect statistics. The companies should train their staff to react and respond to passengers, in particular when the service is disrupted, and they should be readily available to provide prompt advice. Waterloo East station has four platforms, but on that occasion four members of staff were all on the two central platforms. Why were they not deployed to help the customers who needed information? Southeastern needs a rocket under it to provide better information. I have other experiences, which I could go into.
I am enjoying my hon. Friend’s contribution. I wanted to make a point about some of our stations, as I shall very shortly experience the joys of Euston station, to get back to Stoke. Why is it, for example, that we are told only 15 minutes before departure which platform our train to Stoke is to leave from, even though the train has been there for ages? That sort of thing drives people crazy.
My hon. Friend’s intervention is incredibly timely, because I was about to go on to describe my attempts to get to Stoke-on-Trent on Virgin Trains on
I then tried to claim my ticket back. I know we are going to do an inquiry into this, but it too is part of the passenger experience. As instructed, I went on to the Virgin website to claim my ticket back, but there was no facility to say that my train had been cancelled. I was allowed to say that my train had been delayed, but I was unable to say that it had been cancelled. Every time I pressed the button, I was sent back to the beginning, so I took to Twitter and asked, “Is anyone else having this problem with Virgin rail?” I am sure because I am a Member of Parliament and on the Select Committee, I then got Rolls-Royce treatment—[Interruption.] It was absolutely Rolls-Royce, because Virgin wrote back to me saying, “Dear Joseph”, and that they were sorry about my customer experience. They also sent me half the money and we finally resolved the matter. The point, however, is that the experience should not be like that.
In the report one of the online ticketing companies, Trainline, said that people were uncertain whether they had bought the cheapest ticket, which was a barrier to some people choosing to use rail at all. Which companies make the cost of their product so opaque that it might put customers off, other than one that has a trapped market and people who have no choice but to use that service, no matter how bad it is? We really need to deal with that customer experience.
My last point is about overcrowding and capacity. I go back to Southeastern. The figures in the report show that Southeastern operates an appalling service. It is one of the worst, and it should be thankful for Southern which stops it from being bottom of the customer satisfaction rankings. When we consider that every day so many people in south-east London rely on that surface rail service to get to work, and that there is no alternative but road, we realise what an appalling service it is and what an appalling and disproportionate impact it has on the lives of people from that part of London.
Many people think that the whole of London is served by the underground, but my part of London is well outside the orbit of the underground, and buses from outer south-east London take a devil of a time to get into central London. We rely almost entirely on that commuter rail service, and it is not acceptable that it is such an appalling performer. When we do get on trains, they are overcrowded at peak times because they are not long enough and there are so few alternatives to that rail service.
We have lengthened the platforms, so let us now lengthen the trains. We need to ensure that we have the capacity on Southeastern rail services so that people can get on the trains at peak time. We need 12-car trains serving the metro services in south-east London so that constituents from north Kent and my constituency can get to work comfortably and on time every day. Thank you, Sir Edward, for allowing me to make that contribution.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate Mrs Ellman on securing the debate, which I have found fascinating—I must confess that I did not think I would. I am pleased to be here to sum up for the third party in the House.
The hon. Lady was encyclopaedic in her knowledge and wonderful in explaining the key issues. I will not repeat each and every one, but she talked about ticketing—as did Martin Vickers, to whom I will come in a moment—and that rings all sorts of bells. We need a method across the entire rail network for getting the best deal for customers.
At this point, I should declare an interest: I frequently use the Virgin Trains West Coast, and with my senior railcard I manage to get some good discounts. However, because of the nature of how we work in this place, I cannot always book a ticket when that would be cheapest, which makes it very expensive.
I totally understand overcrowding on trains. I am fortunate in that I do not have to commute around London; even though my claustrophobia is now much better, I do not know whether I could do it. Sometimes, when I see how bad the tube is, I am able to step back and wait for 20 minutes until things calm down, but that cannot be done on a train. I feel very sorry for people who have to go through that on a daily basis.
The biggest issue seems to be how the franchises are handed out. We hear that some franchises were given to operators who did not have enough drivers—that is a complete disgrace. As the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside said, passengers should be entitled to a full service, but, if I picked it up correctly, 58,500 cancellations took place in a week—not in a year?
I stand corrected. However, in anyone’s book that number of cancellations is not acceptable. The management fee basis on which the Southern franchise was put out seems to be quite a drain on the public purse and something that the Government should look at as quickly as possible.
Did the Scottish National party Government in Scotland learn anything from the franchising process we have undergone in England? The passenger survey shows that, since the Scottish Government privatised the service to Abellio, satisfaction in the service has declined, and the service has declined since then. I wonder whether any lessons—
Perhaps we should. It is important that the Minister hears how we dealt with these things in Scotland so that he can take on board some of the things the Government there have done.
The hon. Member for Cleethorpes gave us an interesting and humorous list of journeys from Cleethorpes to Haverfordwest. I really enjoyed that. I could introduce him to someone I know well who regularly journeys from here in London to north of Dundee. She is an expert on how to get the best deal with split ticketing. However, the whole point is that people should not have to become experts in that area. There should be a way of simply going on to a website and finding the cheapest journey as easily as possible.
Clive Efford referred to his time on the Select Committee in a former Parliament and was disturbed to find that we are still dealing with the same issues. I know you do not want me to go on for too long, Sir Edward, so I will not do a full summing up of what everyone else said, but, for the Minister’s benefit, yes, there were issues in Scotland over the franchise given to Abellio, but after much consternation among passengers, the Scottish Government brought in an improvement plan and since then things have moved forward. The score for ScotRail on the passenger satisfaction survey was at 83%, which was lower than the previous year, but in the last month or so it has gone back up to about 90%—a number that many companies and commuters in the south-east of England would be delighted to have.
The Scottish Government have put more than £5 billion in an investment programme for the five-year period to 2019. We will open new stations and build new lines. We see that as a way to get a greener Scotland and to increase Scotland’s economic base.
I commend to the House the ten-minute rule Bill that my hon. Friend Drew Hendry—I myself have to read his constituency because it is so vast—introduced in the Chamber only this week. What we really need in Scotland is Network Rail to be devolved. The Scottish Government can take forward many programmes, but ultimately Network Rail is not devolved, which means it does not have full control over the rail network in Scotland.
Yes, I shall do—I apologise, Sir Edward. It is important for the Minister to understand that it is possible to improve things and move them forward. As part of the process of making things better on the English railways, if I can put it that way, he may also want to look at taking powers to nationalise them again, as we did in Scotland, so that Government organisations and national organisations could bid for franchises. That happened on the east coast main line, and it ran very well.
I want to come back to the hon. Lady’s point on further fragmentation of the rail network. How does she feel the passenger experience of travelling on the railways would improve if the management of the infrastructure were further fragmented by having part of it devolved to Scotland, even though many franchises operate in both Scotland and the rest of the UK?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I could speak of a personal constituency issue: there were real difficulties with the electrification of the Glasgow to Edinburgh line. Transport Scotland was responsible for part of it, but some of the issues were being dealt with down here with Network Rail. That made it difficult to get real accountability. The Scottish Government wanted to be accountable for everything, but they could not be because Network Rail is not devolved. That is why we ask for it to be devolved.
The hon. Lady is being generous with her time in giving way. When we consider some of the services that operate on the west coast main line and the east coast main line that cross the border, does she not accept that it would be even more difficult to operate a seamless passenger experience if those operators had to deal with both Network Rail in England and a separate network rail in Scotland?
I see where the hon. Lady is coming from, but no, I would not agree with that; at the moment it is working well. I see no reason why the Scottish Government would make life difficult for Network Rail in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. I am sorry, but I cannot agree with her on this occasion.
I will end there, Sir Edward; thank you for the opportunity.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I thank the Transport Committee for its excellent report. It sets out the details very clearly and is also readable, which is great. I am grateful that it focuses on passengers. We hear so much about train operating companies, Network Rail and the Department for Transport, but the report focuses on passengers and their experiences. They are the bottom line and the end receivers of all of this.
I will briefly say something about Select Committees. In my first five years in Parliament I was a member of the Education Committee. In my experience, Select Committees work really hard and their reports are full of good analysis, hard work and excellent recommendations. Governments do not generally take up those recommendations immediately, but over a period of two or three years, they tend to drip into manifestos and legislation. I therefore give credit to the Minister; I think he has accepted all of the report’s recommendations in full or in part, which I think says something about the report’s excellence. On the recommendations that he has accepted in full, given the Department for Transport’s history, can we not have a long, protracted period of announcement after announcement and just get on with delivering on them?
The bottom line and the reason for the series of five reports, of which this is one, is that rail passengers in the United Kingdom pay some of the highest fares in Europe and receive a poor, and in some cases very poor, service in return. In January this year, rail fares again rose above the rate of inflation, at a time when many commuters face a daily struggle to and from work to get there on time or to get there at all. That is down to the poor and deteriorating performance of train operating companies—not all of them, but far too many. While we in here might debate the high-level stuff about who should run the railways—whether it should be the market, whether it should be publicly owned and so on—rail passengers I speak to do not really care about that. They want an efficient, effective, affordable and accessible railway system. That is not what they are getting at the moment.
Given that the Government accept 13 of the recommendations in full and six in part, and do not disagree with any of the Committee’s recommendations, I will focus on the areas for which the Government only partially accept the recommendations. I ask the Minister to look again at the Government’s responses to the Committee’s criticisms and the recommendations that they have not wholeheartedly accepted. As the Committee forcibly points out, passenger experience, particularly and especially on the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise, has been “woeful”. It puts that down to
“inadequate planning, weaknesses in the franchise handover process, infrastructure and rolling stock failures, mismanagement, poor industrial relations”.
The report states that the Department for Transport must “get a grip”. It actually says that, and I think anyone who has ever travelled on that franchise would agree. I recently took a journey on that franchise. I am from the north-east and do not normally travel on Southern, but I thought I should experience these things if I was to talk about them, so I did. I travelled down to Brighton and came back in the rush hour, and it was absolute hell; it beggars belief that people have to pay enormous amounts of money to endure that daily hell.
In the light of the report, the Department for Transport can no longer claim that no operator could do a better job than TSGN; in fact, it is hard to see how any operator could do a worse job. However, the whole blame does not rest solely with that train operating company. A lack of transparency over performance against contractual obligations is down to the Department for Transport. A lack of publicly available data for monitoring is down to the Department for Transport. A woefully inadequate franchise, including lack of proper information at the time of the bidding process, is down to the Department for Transport.
Even, as we have heard, the lack of drivers at the start of the franchise is down to the Department for Transport in part. Anyone who has ever run a company, public organisation or any kind of organisation knows that there will be significant staff wastage at a point of change, including in a handover period. Staff will take the opportunity to move on to other companies or jobs or to retire. Anyone who does not take account of that is quite frankly negligent. I think that is down to the Department as well as the train operating company. The failure to address that demonstrates a gross lack of knowledge or experience, insufficient due diligence or a lack of care on behalf of both the Department and the franchisee—or probably a combination of all of those factors.
Current and deteriorating industrial relations issues clearly have a part to play in this. The Committee is absolutely right to point out that those disputes can ultimately be resolved only through negotiation between Govia Thameslink Railway and the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers. However, given the Department for Transport’s unusually direct involvement in that franchise, it should take greater responsibility for fostering productive negotiations. The Secretary of State’s current Pontius Pilate-like handling of this is simply not good enough; this is the Government’s business and the Secretary of State has to get involved, not least to stop the dispute from spreading any further. He owes that to passengers. The dispute is not insolvable. The Government need to get the parties together and take a lead. The alternative is that it spreads across the country, as we are beginning to see now, with more and more franchises and passengers becoming involved.
We have heard a lot about Scottish rail and all its difficulties, which I accept entirely. There was a ten-minute rule Bill yesterday about handing over Network Rail to the Scottish Government; given that they have done such a cracking job of everything else that has been delegated to them, as somebody who lives on the east coast I think it would be an act of negligence for the Government to do so. However, I have to give credit where it is due, even though I dislike doing so: this dispute has been solved in Scotland. The roof did not cave in and the world did not come to an end; it was simply solved. If they can solve it in Scotland, we can solve it here. It needs some Government will and a bit of heavy lifting on all sides.
The Minister will expect me to say something on recommendation five of the report and the impact of driver-only operation on disabled people’s access—particularly in relation to “turn up and go”. The Committee asks for research to be undertaken into the potential impact of DOO on disabled passengers and for the Department to use that research to issue guidance to train operating companies to help them mitigate potential detrimental effects on disabled passengers; in other words, to make the reasonable adjustments they need to make under the law. That is reasonable and is the very least the Government could do.
Before I came to this place, I worked with disabled young people in education. I know how hard their lives are, and while I was not always able to give them everything that they wanted, I spent a great deal of time trying to give them what they needed. I know that a great deal can be done to mitigate detrimental effects with technology and through equipment, but ultimately, my experience is that it always comes down to the intervention of people. To pretend otherwise is simply disingenuous. Providing more accessible trains and buses is good. Providing audible and visual displays is good. Providing an ombudsman is good, although disabled passengers tell me that they do not want an ombudsman who will bung them a few quid a year or several months after an event. They want to be able to travel, as we all do, when they need to and with dignity, and unless the Department for Transport or the train operating companies demonstrate to them otherwise, that will mean a person other than the driver on the train or the platform to assist them.
I have always thought that the role of Government is to ensure that as we move forward no one is left behind. Frankly, if Government do not believe in that, they do not have a right to call themselves a Government; they are nothing other than a special interest group. Disabled passengers are not asking a great deal. They simply want to be able to travel when they need to, and with dignity, and that requires people.
The strength of this report is that it is not about the Department for Transport, the train operating companies or Network Rail but about the passengers, who are currently being woefully let down. I thank the Select Committee for that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate the Chairman of the Select Committee, Mrs Ellman, on securing the debate, and all the Committee members who have attended it as well as the other hon. Members who have participated in it.
I am pleased that Marion Fellows has, to her surprise, enjoyed the debate. Let me warn her to be careful: rail is a very seductive and addictive issue. Transport was my first Select Committee, and look what has happened to me. I put it down to the good stewardship of its Chairman that I am where I am today, so the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw should watch out for what might occur, either here or in Edinburgh—who knows?
I thank the Select Committee for its report, which is of the usual high standard. As has been suggested, I take these reports very seriously indeed. I know how much work goes into compiling them, cross-examining witnesses and drawing sensible conclusions, so I never take any report such as this lightly.
Much of the report came from an evidence session that I did on, I think, day three of being in my current role. I was a little petrified, to say the least, but the report reflects what I said, and I stand by every word of it. However, since that appearance, my knowledge has developed a bit—thank goodness—and of course the circumstances that we are addressing on the railways have changed. I want to use this opportunity to discuss some of the recommendations in the report, as well as the points made today by my hon. Friend Martin Vickers, Clive Efford and the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, Pat Glass.
One important point made—by the hon. Member for North West Durham, I think—was that actions speak louder than words. We can all agree to specific points in reports and so on, but what matters is actions. Ticketing reform is a good case study for that. I remember when we looked at ticketing reform in the Select Committee—I think that was in 2012. There was a big, thick, wodgey Government document—I think it was about 200 pages in two sections—with everything that they were going to do to reform ticketing and make it all work fine on behalf of the consumer. Nothing ever happened with that. I got it out soon after my appointment as a Minister and reread it, thinking, “Maybe there are some clues in here.” And I thought, “Well, I’m not going to repeat that mistake.”
In my first week as Minister, there was a significant news story about split ticketing on the front page of The Times. I immediately sat down with my officials and said, “Right. Passenger experience has to be the key issue that we focus on,” and everyone said, “Okay, how do we define passenger experience?”, because in a sense, as we have heard today, it means everything.
Passenger experience is every single interaction between a customer who wants to travel by train and the train operators. It is quite hard to segment down, but segment we must, so when it came to my recent fares and ticketing action plan, I did not want just a list of actions that I wanted the industry to take at some future date. I wanted quite specific itemised actions, with a delivery date—because delivery dates are often quite rare in these action plans—that we could hold the industry and, indeed, the Department to account on. As the Minister, I could then start to measure whether we were achieving those goals.
Just this week, for example, I was pleased to note that the Rail Delivery Group has changed its rules on how those who leave their railcards at home are compensated. Gradually, slowly but surely, the ticketing action plan is coming into effect; that is happening as rapidly as possible. I find that all too often the greatest hurdles relate to system change—programming the computers and ensuring that each computer can speak to every other computer, so that we can then get the outcomes we want.
A large number of comments today and, indeed, the bulk of this report, focused on the issues involving GTR. I know that the Select Committee has taken a close interest in that matter, so I want to try to address it. It will come as no surprise to those gathered here today when I say that the performance of GTR is not good enough. It continues to be not good enough; I continue to be dissatisfied. I expect GTR to run a timely, reliable and predictable service for passengers, but I will only ever look at changes to that franchise arrangement if that delivers an improvement on behalf of passengers and is not merely for the sake of structural change.
The report highlighted the fact that we did not wholly accept the case that someone might do a better job. I entirely accept, philosophically, that yes, someone one day might be able to do a better job. My concern at the moment is to ensure that there is not a severe deterioration in provision because of yet another handover in franchise operator. We need to evolve this franchise into a much better place.
The hon. Lady makes a fair point. I do not think that it is for me as a Minister to say that there is a specific target that must be hit. What I expect GTR to be doing on a regular basis is seeking to improve performance, and I will talk the hon. Lady through what I expect GTR to do.
The punctuality of services operated by GTR was at 73.1% over the 12 months to
The Chairman of the Select Committee rightly raised the issue of force majeure. This has been one of my bugbears as Minister for many months now. Indeed, my enthusiasm for solving it rather overcame established procedure in terms of how we go about that. I am pleased to report to hon. Members that we have now completed assessing six full periods of GTR’s performance.
The quality of the data has significantly improved, allowing us to make swifter judgments, but because what we are discussing is a contractual obligation, GTR has the right, if it disagrees with the Department’s findings, to challenge those findings. That is what we are still stuck in at the moment. I aspire to bring that to a conclusion as rapidly as possible. I share the undoubted enthusiasm of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside for putting that particular aspect of GTR’s performance behind us, but sadly I am not yet in a position to do that.
None the less, I am still trying to get Network Rail and the train operators to improve their focus on industry performance outputs. They are concentrating on three key workstreams to deliver improvements across the south-east. The first is the 2018 timetable specification, which will be crucial to increasing capacity across the south-east. The second is a back-to-basics approach—ensuring that trains are on time and correct processes are being followed and, in particular, focusing on the peaks in the morning and evening. We have found time and again that when something goes wrong on this network, what is called the perturbation and the consequential delays are significant.
I remember that in my first week, we had a sinkhole at Forest Hill—it no doubt delayed the hon. Member for Eltham on his way back to his constituency. That was an example of how something that simply could not be expected caused significant delays. It is really important that both the train operator and Network Rail work much more closely together to ensure that they recover from these problems when they occur, rather than allowing them to cascade throughout the timetable.
That is why it is important that the Department as a whole works with all the industry stakeholders to find new ways to measure performance that are more closely aligned with what passenger themselves experience day to day. That is why we are looking at improving our measurement of what is called right-time departure and right-time arrival. A passenger judges whether a train is on time by whether it arrives at the time said in timetable, and not within five to 10 minutes. Right-time departure is going to be a much more important figure in years to come, rather than the old-style public performance measure. I want to bring that change in as part of control period 6.
We also want to make sure that, as the hon. Member for North West Durham mentioned, there is much greater industry transparency on train service performance levels across franchises. I am absolutely committed to a much greater degree of transparency; none the less, it is a difficult process to engineer—if only because every single franchise has a slightly different set of measurements, which are contractual obligations in respect of the individual train operating companies. That work is ongoing within the Department; it cannot come soon enough, in my view. I hope to make announcements in due course—as we always say in civil service parlance—and am very eager that we keep the pace going on it.
Many Members mentioned whether the company had a full complement of drivers on day one when they took over the franchise. I was not the Minister at the time, but I understand that part of the problem was that when the deal was announced it said it did have enough drivers, but, when it came to mobilisation day, some of those drivers had left to work in the freight sector. It is entirely right and proper that we express concerns as to how that gap occurred between those two points, but we need to take a wider look at driver recruitment across the industry as a whole.
We all know that there are skills issues across the rail sector. We have an ageing workforce and a large number of workers who are about to retire. Are we doing everything we can to make sure that we are recruiting enough drivers, that driver training is an efficient process and that people have the option of going through driver training themselves—as HGV drivers do—to seek employment somewhere else? Are we making full use of all the training facilities that we now have around the country, which I am sure the Select Committee has visited? We are in close talks with the Rail Delivery Group about how we can improve driver training as a whole to improve the throughput, make sure it meets the needs in the here and now and get the numbers we need.
Many have mentioned the industrial relations problems currently on the network. I am as frustrated as everybody else at seeing yet more RMT strikes this week, but it is clear that they are now having very little impact on the network. Last Monday, 90.5% of Southern services ran. Any strike is frustrating for passengers, but I say to the RMT, “Your strikes on Southern are not having the impact you desire. It is far better that you cease industrial action and have talks with the company, rather than persisting with the strikes.”
I am somewhat concerned about the complacency of that statement. Industrial action is spreading—as we heard, it is now in Merseyrail and Northern—and if the Government do not take action, it will spread right across the country.
I take the hon. Lady’s point that it is spreading, but we remain open to talking to the RMT if it calls off its industrial action. That is the blockage that stops it from having a discussion with the Government and the various train operating companies. Nobody is losing their job; nobody is losing any pay. The independent regulator has found that the system on Southern can be safe, and GTR is taking all necessary action to ensure that it is delivered safely. I welcome yesterday’s renewed agreement between ASLEF and GTR. I gather it will now go to a ballot of ASLEF members; I hope that they endorse it, and that it then ensures we can focus on delivering improved services across the Southern network.
We are working to improve the service for GTR customers and improve compensation measures. Overall, “delay repay” payments totalled £3.2 million in the last period, of which £175,000 were “delay repay 15”. We have also launched our special one-off form of compensation, the equivalent of a month’s free travel, for all Southern season ticket holders. GTR has handled almost 37,000 special claims in that regard, totalling £8.84 million in compensation. The scheme closes on
Please be assured that I stay in touch with people on the situation by having regular meetings with GTR’s chief executive officer and chief operating officer to discuss all the issues. They include compensation and the implementation and progress of all the Government-funded schemes under both the £20 million that was initially given out, and the current £300 million that will go on improving the Balcombe tunnel, removing vegetation and ensuring greater reliability.
I have five minutes remaining. As ever, how can one discuss everything about rail in the time allowed? Indeed, it is even less than that because I have to give the Select Committee Chairman a chance to have her say. I will briefly deal with accessibility, which is a mutual concern for both myself and the Labour party spokesman, the hon. Member for North West Durham.
It goes without saying that we want everybody to have equal access to transport. We have committed more than £400 million through Access for All funding and other means to improve accessibility, and train companies have to comply with the Equality Act 2010. However, I think the real picture is the fact that more and more disabled people are seeking to travel by train. The challenge for the train operating companies is getting harder with every passing month.
In the past year, we have seen 4% more sales of the disabled persons railcard and 7% more bookings under the passenger assist scheme. With more disabled people travelling, train operating companies have an ever decreasing margin for getting it wrong. I welcome the fact that the Rail Delivery Group is trying to merge the ticket reservation system and the passenger assist reservation system by December 2018, although I query whether that is soon enough and whether it could do more to bring that forward.
I remind all train operating companies that they must ensure that procedures are in place to enable disabled passengers and persons of reduced mobility to board a train in service that is under the sole operation of the driver. Where that occurs, I want to see a second person on board or on the platform to render help to those passengers who need it most. The key difference is that I do not believe that that person should be safety-critical. I do not think it is acceptable to have a situation where a train is cancelled and a disabled passenger cannot depart the station in the first place because there is not a second person on that train. It is fair to say that that is a small difference between myself and the hon. Lady.
Regardless of whether such assistance has been pre-booked, the principle of a “turn up and go” railway is important and must become more important in the future. It will include the requirement for all train operating companies to provide appropriately trained staff to meet their obligations. I see that as meaning more staff required on the railways, and more passenger-facing staff—not locked behind a door focusing on buttons—engaging with passengers on a regular basis. In addition, if a disabled passenger is unable to access a station, the operator must provide alternative transport—usually an accessible taxi. That will require much more cross-Government work to ensure that we have a greater supply of accessible taxis.
I am conscious that the Chairman of the Select Committee needs to say a few final words, so I shall leave my remarks there.
The Minister spoke about the importance of having a delivery date. It is vital that we have an early delivery date for the improvement of the passenger experience, and I assure him that we will continue to pursue that aim.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered the Sixth Report from the Transport Committee of Session 2016-17, The future of rail: Improving the rail passenger experience, HC 64, and the Government Response, HC 905.