I beg to move,
That this House
has considered Northern rail services in Greater Manchester.
It is always a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. When I was elected 21 years ago, in 1997, our railways were still, in effect, publicly owned. The reality then was that the service was rubbish, and it had been rubbish for a very long time. John Major, the then Prime Minister, having starved the railways of investment, privatised them in indecent haste—I think he thought that would be his legacy; perhaps it is—just before he was forcefully expelled from office in the 1997 Labour landslide.
The ensuing Labour Government decided that there were more important priorities, particularly in health and education, than the renationalisation of the rail system. The truth is that we wrongly assumed, as far as public transport was concerned, that things could only get better. In fairness, there has been significant investment in the system in the intervening years, paid for by rail travellers through increased fares and passenger numbers. I am certainly not in favour of returning to the failed services delivered by British Rail in the 1990s, and I do not believe that anyone else is, but the fact is that the present system is broken and was unfit for purpose from the outset. That is clearly demonstrated today and every day in Greater Manchester and the north by the delivery of services by Northern rail.
Northern is the trading name of Arriva Rail North, whose franchise began in April 2016. Provided that it does not walk away, we may suffer it until 2025. Arriva Rail North has been a disaster from day one. It has been in freefall ever since, and it does not deserve to be entrusted with the franchise for another day. The Northern franchise, which is one of the largest in the UK, provides more than 16,000 train services to a population of 15 million people. In Greater Manchester, Northern trains call at 97 stations, which are used every day by a huge number of people, who depend on the service to go to work and education, as well as to enjoy their social and family lives. According to Office of Rail and Road estimates of station usage, there were nearly 81 million passenger entries and exits at Greater Manchester stations in 2016-17.
The quality of those services is essential to the lives of thousands of families and has an enormous effect on the economy of the north. It is a very big deal. We must not allow the political argument about our transport deficiencies to descend into the Government automatically supporting all private transport providers and the Opposition automatically attacking them all. Regardless of our views about nationalisation and privatisation, Northern rail is failing.
When Northern was first awarded the franchise, it promised more than 2,000 additional trains each week, with more frequent, earlier and later trains offering passengers greater choice. It promised a 37% increase in peak-time capacity. It promised 281 new carriages, plus the full refurbishment of the remaining fleet and the removal of all Pacer trains within three years. Yet according to the Office of Rail and Road, the punctuality of Northern’s services in Greater Manchester and Liverpool has plummeted from 90% to 83% since the start of 2017. It must be compelled to do much better, and fair compensation is central to improving its performance.
If we are to remain with a privatised service, franchisees must be answerable to passengers. As the situation stands, they are not. As we would expect from an operation focused on profit, Northern does little to encourage passengers to claim compensation. The Consumers Association, which publishes Which? magazine, has called for improvements in the delivery of compensation. Its research found that only a third of passengers who may have been entitled to compensation made a claim. The two main reasons why people fail to claim are that it is too complex and there is a lack of information about the claims process. The Consumers Association found that unsurprising, as the way train companies award compensation varies widely across the country. It reports that train companies can take up to 20 days to respond to claims, with one in four people needing to prompt the train company about their claim.
Northern’s compensation scheme excludes people with multi-modal tickets, despite Ministers stating that it must include them, and passengers are left waiting for as much as four months for a response to their refund applications. Over the past two months, things have gone from extremely bad to even worse. All that adds up to Northern’s record before the unbelievable timetable transfer.
When things go wrong at Northern—and things are certainly going wrong—the whole of Greater Manchester is in danger of grinding to a halt, because the road alternatives are often close to gridlock. The major problem at the moment is that Northern simply does not employ enough drivers to allow for flexibility. Its model is dependent on drivers working on their rest day. To make matters worse, the company clearly has industrial relations problems, and there has been no rest day working agreement since February. It blames industrial action for its poor performance, but when the Government privatised the system in 1997, they privatised its industrial relations, too. It is just not acceptable to blame the trade unions and no one else. The company must be accountable for disputes with its employees. It must manage its industrial relations. That is its job, not anyone else’s. The sad reality is that most of Northern’s employees despise their employer about as much as most of its passengers do.
In fairness—this is the only time I will say that—Northern’s operational problems have certainly been made much worse by delays to the electrification of the Blackpool to Preston line by Network Rail. Drivers have to undergo safety training before trains can operate on new lines, but Northern’s lack of planning meant that, from
I have repeatedly asked why no strategy was in place and why there was no set schedule for cancellations so that passengers would know what to expect. Why were there no rail replacement bus services? Northern has provided no explanations for its failures. The restatement of its explanation that cancellations are due to driver shortages is simply not good enough; neither is the promise that things will improve by 2020. Northern, I am sad to say, reminds me very much of the Secretary of State, repeating the mantra, “It’s not our fault. Things will get better.” Ordinary, hard-working people’s jobs are at risk, and family livelihoods depend on the ability to get to work on time, yet Northern, along with the Secretary of State, has taken no action and just looked the other way. If my constituents were to apologise to their employers for being late for work every day, while assuring their bosses that their timekeeping would improve by 2020, they would be out of a job long before 2020—and Northern should be, too.
Unbelievably, when the new timetable began on
I am told that, on the first Monday of the new timetable, there were 196 cancelled services and 131 part-cancelled services across the Northern network. Forty-two of those cancelled services were due to stop in Bolton. Just over a week later, on
The week before the new timetable was introduced, passengers were being told by train guards that the drivers’ new work schedule would not be completed in time. Passengers expected chaos, and train guards expected chaos. Only the Secretary of State and his so-called experts were in the dark. Drivers were expected to turn up for work on
Passengers do not really want to know about new ticket machines and wi-fi on the train; they just want to go to the station and catch a train that is on time and that has a seat for them to sit down on. One of my constituents texted me to say she was stood in the toilet of a packed train with three other people she did not know. Let me tell the Minister that wi-fi cannot be used in those circumstances. He will understand my constituent’s concern.
I frequently say that we have an excellent train line in Bolton, which runs right through my constituency. There is potentially a great service—all we need is some trains with enough carriages. It is not rocket science, is it? When a peak-hour train with two carriages—instead of the promised four—arrives at Bromley Cross station in my constituency, an audible groan runs right down the platform, because people expect to have to fight to get on.
That is right, because nobody gets off in Bolton—they are going to Manchester. People are getting on the train all down the line, so the closer people are to Manchester, the smaller chance they have of getting on at all. Four-carriage trains are essential. That has nothing to do with the timetable issues. Promises on the delivery of extra carriages have been repeatedly broken by Secretaries of State and by the previous Prime Minister, who visited Bolton before the 2015 election and is now long gone down the line. We are fed up with the daily struggle to catch a train.
A seriously disabled passenger who wants to travel to work in Manchester from Bolton might as well give up their job, because catching a train in the peak period from Bolton is a rugby scrum, and people need to be 100% fit to succeed. It is a disgrace. There is no room for prams and no room for bikes, and it is absolutely impossible for anyone with mobility issues. In this country, in the 21st century, that is completely unacceptable. Northern must accept its responsibility and be called to account by the Secretary of State.
Bolton has suffered disproportionately from a terrible service over many years, and our experience is a result of problems that continue within the system. The division of responsibility between rail companies, Network Rail, rolling stock leasing companies and the Government has allowed them all to blame each other for failures, and passengers end up paying for them, sometimes with their jobs. What is wrong with this privatisation model is that passengers cannot vote with their feet and use another provider—and too many train operators know it. If publicly owned monopolies are unsuitable, privately owned monopolies are very much worse.
The ultimate responsibility for this catalogue of failures must lie with the Secretary of State for Transport. If not, what is the point in having a Secretary of State for Transport? I very much doubt that he will sort out these problems, but if he does not do that in the short, medium and long term, there is certainly no point in this Secretary of State for Transport, and he should clear his desk, along with Northern rail.
It is a pleasure to follow Sir David Crausby, who I congratulate on securing the debate. It is also a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. However, the residents of Stockport who I represent have been experiencing anything but pleasure from the introduction of Northern rail’s new and chaotic timetable, which came into force a couple of weeks ago.
There are many unacceptable elements to Northern rail’s timetable, but the most pressing for me is the glaring gap that has been created at peak morning rush hour, owing to the removal of the two most popular commuter services, the 7.50 am and the 8.01 am from Hazel Grove to Manchester Piccadilly, which also called at Woodsmoor and Davenport stations. That has meant that all three well-used commuter stations now have a 45-minute gap in trains to Manchester from just after half-past seven until around 8.20 am, and then no services again until 9 am.
That has left hundreds of commuters unable to get to Manchester on time for work, forced to arrive either much too early or too late. It has disrupted pupils’ ability to get to school, as well as having an effect on parents who have to co-ordinate dropping off their children in the morning, sometimes at multiple schools and nurseries. When passengers can get on a train, they are faced with huge overcrowding, with many unable to get seats, and some trains now have two cars rather than four. In one recent case, overcrowding led to a passenger needing medical attention after fainting in the cramped carriages. It is also forcing many commuters to abandon the rail network entirely and to travel by car instead, adding further to the already all-too-congested roads, including the A6.
It is not just the morning rush-hour services that are affected; Sunday evening services out of Manchester have also been cut or brought forward. For example, the last train back from Manchester to Romiley and other nearby stations is now at 9.45 pm, meaning that people who want to spend the evening in Manchester have to cut their time there short.
These timetable changes are having a damaging and hurtful impact on both the family and professional lives of my constituents. I have not even attempted to calculate the economic cost of the hours of lost productivity. Sadly, I hear consistently from residents about their impression that the rail industry as a whole does not care about passengers. There is extreme anger. The two words that have appeared most often in the dozens of letters and emails that I have had on this subject are “ridiculous” and “unacceptable”, and I must agree entirely with those descriptions. The sad fact is that this timetabling nightmare is overshadowing what should be welcome news of upgrades to infrastructure, more trains overall and new or refurbished rolling stock.
During my Adjournment debate on the last day before recess, I highlighted in detail how the issue affected my own constituency. However, it has become clear in the days that followed, as the stories shared by hon. Members across the House illustrate, that this is not just a case of a few hiccups of implementation on a few lines or services, but a systemic and structural shortcoming of the whole Northern rail timetable.
Much of the blame for this bungle falls at the feet of Network Rail. Its catalogue of delays relating to the electrification project from Manchester to Preston via Bolton, which the hon. Member for Bolton North East alluded to in his speech and which is now apparently two years overdue, has meant that train operators faced uncertainty over the state of the available infrastructure. That had a knock-on effect on their ability to plan an effective timetable. Also, they are unable to use the electric engines on that line and so are reliant on old diesel engines to make up for the shortage of rolling stock. That in turn caused Northern rail to put its timetable bids in late, by which time many of its required platform slots had been taken up by other operators. It has been a perfect storm of delayed rail upgrades leading to delayed timetable planning, leading to delayed or even missing trains.
While I have had some positive dealings with regional representatives of Network Rail, this whole debacle is a symptom of Network Rail’s aloofness, unaccountability and, at times, sheer arrogance in failing to communicate with either train operators or passengers, let alone Members of Parliament. When its chief executive Mark Carne, who does not readily reply to my letters, leaves later this this year, I am sure he will not be missed by passengers—and certainly not by me.
However, while it may be justifiable to heap a large portion of the blame for the delays and their consequences on Network Rail, relevant questions must be asked of others, including the Government, given their ultimate control of Network Rail. What were the reasons for the further delay to the Bolton electrification project, which has caused this mess-up of the timetabling process? What assurance can be given that the work will not be subject to further delay? When the delays on the Bolton line upgrades came to light, why did Northern rail say it would still be able to manage, and why did it not flag up the depth of the problems that that would cause? Did the Department for Transport not know that the infrastructure delays would scupper the timetable? Why did rail experts advise Transport Ministers that it would all be fine? What searching questions did Ministers ask to verify what they were being told?
What passengers really want to know is what is being done to get us out of this mess. On Monday, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State told me in the Chamber that he would bang heads together to sort out the 45-minute gap in morning peak-time services that is affecting my constituents so badly. Yesterday evening I met with him again to reiterate those concerns. Furthermore, this morning I met with both Network Rail and Northern rail, who gave assurances that the Bolton electrification project would definitely be completed this year and that that would enable Northern to plug the unacceptable gaps in the current timetable. I will have to hold somebody to account for that statement.
Questions still remain for passengers faced with a whole summer of disruption. Will Transport for the North, the regional transport body, conduct a formal assessment as to whether Northern rail is in breach of its performance targets as set out in its franchise agreements? If it is, what action will be taken? Transport for the North is currently co-running the rail franchise in the north, but is not using the full extent of its powers. Will the Department for Transport ensure that it uses those powers? Finally, do passengers really have to wait for the six-month timetable review, or will the Minister do all he can to get things moving more speedily? I look forward to hearing from my hon. Friend the Minister. He is in an unenviable position, but I am sure he will appreciate the anger of my constituents and those of hon. Members across the House, and do his very best by them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Sir David Crausby on securing a debate that is important to all our constituents in Greater Manchester.
As I said in the Chamber on Monday when the Secretary of State made a statement to the House, the problems my constituents are experiencing are not new. They have endured months of misery, beginning well before the botched introduction of last month’s new timetable and well before the delays in completing the infrastructure improvements. In fact, my constituents have been used for far too many years to an unreliable, infrequent service on clapped-out old Pacer trains, which are still running on the line despite promises of replacements to come, and they are frankly fed up with what they have had to put up with.
Although performance has not been good for a very long time on the line through my constituency between Liverpool Lime Street and Manchester Oxford Road, the performance in recent months has been particularly abysmal. Day after day, constituents have been in touch with me about delayed, cancelled or overcrowded trains; trains that have only two carriages when they should have four; trains not stopping at all at scheduled station stops because they are too full for anyone else to get on, meaning that people who need to alight at those stations cannot do so and are taken well out of their way; huge gaps between services as not one, not two, but sometimes three consecutive rush-hour trains are cancelled, meaning people cannot get home from work to see their families in the evening; and a dearth of information for passengers, with information switching at the last minute from, “The train’s on time,” or, “The train’s two minutes away,” to, “The train’s 15 minutes delayed,” or, “It’s not coming at all.”
It is absolutely impossible for passengers in those circumstances to have any confidence in the service they need to rely on. No wonder that they are thoroughly fed up and furious. No wonder, as other hon. Members have said this afternoon, that they have started to drive to work or to other engagements, although many would prefer to take the train, because they know they cannot trust the service. As my hon. Friend alluded to, it is also no wonder that staff morale is so poor when drivers, conductors and other staff find themselves delivering a service that they know is substandard and for which they take the brunt of passenger anger. I have no doubt that that is contributing to the already difficult employment situation that my hon. Friend mentioned, with Northern itself acknowledging to me that absence rates are on the rise.
Passengers in my constituency do not really care whether it is Network Rail, Northern rail, Rail North or other train operators that are actually responsible for this mess and they do not really care about this passing the parcel of blame. They want someone to take responsibility for the whole system’s functioning, in order to fix the service and to make it reliable now. That is why I will put three particular questions to the Minister this afternoon.
First of all, we need a reliable, credible, up-to-date information system for passengers that tells them what is going to happen, and for that to then happen. My constituents have been relying on the now notorious hashtag on Twitter, #NorthernFail, to tell them what is going on; indeed, that has been my best source of information about what is happening to my constituents too. If #NorthernFail can give us up-to-date, real-time information about what is going on with the rail service, why on earth can Northern rail not?
It should not be too hard to give passengers reliable and accurate information that allows them to have faith that a service will run, rather than the situation they are in now, in which they do not know if a train will run or not. If that does not change, many of them will vote with their feet and simply not use the service at all. Will the Minister say what is being done to improve the quality and reliability of information to passengers, so that we can win back passenger confidence in the service and ensure that they can use it confidently in future?
Secondly, my hon. Friend talked about the compensation scheme that is in place, which I would also like the Minister to address. I was very pleased to hear the Secretary of State for Transport say in the Chamber on Monday that the compensation offered will be equivalent to that provided to Southern Rail users, who have suffered similar levels of disruption in recent years. It is absolutely clear that the current system is simply not adequate to compensate passengers for the level of inconvenience that they have suffered. The delay repay system does not address the persistent pattern of delay, cancellation, uncertainty and inconvenience.
That limited system has been exacerbated by passengers being frankly insulted by long delays in getting their compensation, by being refused for petty reasons and by being offered quite derisory amounts. Passengers have told me of compensation of £1 or £1.12, which is hardly worth the effort of asking for. What more can the Minister say to us about a proper, appropriate and fair compensation scheme that will recognise this persistent inconvenience? When will it be in place, how will passengers access it and what can they do to gain redress if they are not satisfied with the compensation they have had so far?
Thirdly, what will the Minister and his Department do going forward to monitor and enforce a Northern rail performance that complies with its contractual obligations under its current franchise, and what will he do to drive improvement? Passengers have been telling us for months that the service is dire, so I am at a loss to understand why it has taken so long for the Secretary of State to act. As my hon. Friend pointed out, this fragmented system is clearly not delivering for passengers, because Network Rail, Northern, the different train operators and numerous oversight and governance bodies all seem to stir the pot but do not actually take responsibility for putting things right.
Will the Minister describe exactly who is responsible at every level in this chain of command, from the operating companies to the infrastructure companies, to the oversight companies, and to the Department for Transport and Ministers themselves? I am not clear to whom the different demands and challenges should be directed, and I am tired, as are my constituents, of seeing blame passed all the way around.
I look forward to hearing the Minister’s answers to these questions, but my constituents look forward most to assurances that a service that they have endured for too long will now finally see real improvements.
It is a pleasure, as always, to see you in the Chair, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend Sir David Crausby on his comprehensive and historical analysis of the failings of the transport network, and particularly of Northern rail in its delivery of services to so many of our constituents.
I will focus specifically on the recent timetable changes and how they came about, and what I think the Government should have done to address these problems before they actually happened. I also have some specific questions about compensation and contingency arrangements. I was promised by the Secretary of State that things would improve by today, but I am afraid that the information I have so far is that there has been no improvement at all.
As colleagues have mentioned, there have been many issues with the new timetable, including a shortage of properly trained and available drivers who are qualified to run the new services, as described in last year’s Gibb report, and, as my hon. Friend mentioned, the overrunning of engineering works—specifically, the electrification of the Manchester-Bolton-Preston line. Those issues meant that the proposed new timetable had to be overwritten, delaying its launch and the driver training for the new routes. Network Rail’s planners were unable to confirm routes and times until a matter of weeks before the revamp, rather than the normal three to six months for a routine change. Will the Minister explain why the timetable changes were not deferred once these multiple problems became clear?
We have heard words of remorse from the Transport Secretary, Network Rail and others, but in addition to many constituents asking me to raise the matter with the Transport Secretary last November, many rail experts also raised these issues. They have been proven right. Why were they not listened to? How could this have gone so horribly wrong, and why was there no delay in implementing the new timetable?
The Transport Secretary said in the Chamber on Monday that
“both Northern and GTR were not sufficiently prepared to manage a timetable change of this scale… Neither Northern nor GTR had a clear fall-back plan.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 642, c. 50.]
If that was the case, why were Ministers and officials within the Department not aware of it beforehand? Surely, given the sheer scale of the changes being introduced, they should have been closely monitoring this.
In Oldham East and Saddleworth there has been deep concern from passengers at Greenfield station for many months about the proposed new timetable, with a reduced service and capacity at peak hours, destinations changing from Manchester Victoria to Manchester Piccadilly and poor connection times via Stalybridge, as well as ongoing accessibility issues at Greenfield. I wrote to the Secretary of State about these issues last November, and in response the then Transport Minister, Paul Maynard, said the new timetable would deliver “significant reliability benefits”. The evidence has shown that response to be completely wrong. Given that “significant reliability benefits” have not been delivered, will the Minister ensure that future timetable planning now underway for the December changes will actively involve rail users and not ignore their concerns?
The impact of the timetable changes on people’s lives cannot be underestimated, particularly on those with caring responsibilities. Parents who were previously able to drop their children off at school before getting their morning train into Manchester now struggle to do so if they are to get into Manchester for 9 am. The changes to the timetable mean that there is a 44-minute gap between 7.45 am and 8.30 am, which is the time that they are able to do so after dropping their children off. Their return journeys are equally fraught, with not just too few trains between 5 pm and 6 pm, but the timings of these trains being at 5.17 pm and 6 pm.
We realised that the new timetable was going to play havoc with the lives of working people using Greenfield station in particular, but the chaos since
As I told the Transport Secretary following his statement in the Commons, on Monday there were five cancellations at Greenfield station alone, and that was before the evening peak. That was under the new emergency timetable that was meant to address these issues, but made things worse. Such a level of incompetence from TPE and Northern is unacceptable and my constituents deserve much better.
The Government must ensure that appropriate compensation is paid to season ticket holders and that there is a reduction in general ticket prices. The announcement that there will be a special compensation scheme for passengers on affected routes on Northern is to be welcomed, but passengers affected by disruption to TPE services must also be included. The Government also need to look at wider compensation for people who may have had their wages docked or even worse. We have heard of cases where people are on final warnings and have been threatened with losing their jobs.
What details can the Minister provide on how passengers will receive appropriate redress for the disruption and other hardship that they have experienced since
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing attention to the situation faced by constituents trying to travel to exams. I know of exactly the same situation. Even more shockingly, when a taxi had to be used and the cost was claimed back from Northern rail, it said that such expense would not be covered by the compensation system.
Clearly that is absolutely unacceptable. I hope the Minister will reassure us that that will not be the case and that he will take that up with Northern.
We need timescales, eligibility requirements, details of how passengers can claim, and confirmation that entitlements will be similar to those conferred by last year’s Southern passenger compensation scheme, as mentioned by the Transport Secretary on Monday. Will the Minister confirm that compensation for poor service will be measured against the original timetable proposed, not the slimmed-down one now on offer? Will Northern tickets be able to be used on other operators and modes of transport, as called for by my colleague, the Greater Manchester Mayor, Andy Burnham?
Northern’s action to set a unilateral timetable should not go unchallenged. I repeat my earlier point: passengers must be engaged with and consulted on the timetable. What discussions has the Minister had with Northern on customer consultation on the timetable? The Transport Secretary assured me and my hon. Friends the Members for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) and for Colne Valley (Thelma Walker) on Monday evening that the emergency timetable will deliver significant improvements by today. I have mentioned what we have found out so far, but I will hold the Secretary of State to that.
What contingency arrangements are in place to remove the franchise from Northern if services do not rapidly improve for passengers across Greater Manchester? I would expect the contingency arrangements to be in place already. Finally, will the Department look to give Transport for the North the necessary policy and financial powers to ensure oversight of all suburban and regional services and work in tandem with Network Rail?
It is clear from this fiasco that our railways cannot be cared for properly from London, and the failure to fairly fund transport in the north exacerbates the problems we face, with deferred electrification and poor-quality, ageing rolling stock. The Minister will be aware that local and regional newspapers yesterday joined together under the banner #onenorth to fight for the north and called on the Government to prove their commitment to our region. I hope that his response will show that commitment.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate my hon. Friend Sir David Crausby on securing this timely debate, coming as it does with the fiasco of the timetable chaos. I will not repeat what my colleagues have said. Hon. Members have dealt with the issues and challenges and with the main problems with the transport system in the north, and they have also mentioned solutions.
I want to talk about the experience of people using transport in the north, and particularly my personal experience. I will declare an interest here: I am a regular traveller on the trains from Bolton to Manchester and then onwards. Most of the time, I never find a seat to sit on, and we are always crammed in like sardines. At peak times, many of us cannot get on the train at all because it is already fully crowded. I am not talking just about problems with people occupying seats or people standing; we are literally pressed against each other. As a result, some people cannot even get on the train, which means they miss that train. The next one is about 20 or 25 minutes later, which means people miss connecting trains. Students are delayed getting to universities, colleges and schools. Most of the people who work, especially in the early hours of the morning, often get to work late. I am not exaggerating when I say that I have had constituents write to me to say they have lost their jobs because they have been turning up late day in, day out. That is not an exaggeration—it is the complete truth.
On Monday I received an email from Mrs Dearden, who wrote:
“I’m writing to ask you to seek some responsibility and accountability from Northern Rail, and the Government, to sort out the sorry state of rail travel around Greater Manchester. I just wanted to add to your portfolio another tale of the family stress this is causing. My daughter-in-law, a solicitor, travels to work, in Preston, from Bolton every day. She also needs to take and collect her son to and from nursery. For the past few weeks the...unpredictable service that Northern Rail has been providing has meant that she has been faced with the ‘choice’ of getting to work later each day and leaving work earlier in order to collect her son from nursery. As you can understand, this doesn’t amount to a normal working week from her employer’s point of view, nor to her colleagues. It leaves her child, and his nursery, with uncertainty.”
She is not alone, and her case is not exceptional. Many thousands of people in similar situations are suffering extreme disruption to their family life and are being put under stress from a service that they, as customers, pay for. It is not a free service, but something they pay for.
The situation is not new. It has been going on for years. In February 2014 I met senior managers from Northern Rail, Transport for Greater Manchester and First TransPennine Express to discuss the problems with our rail services, and on
I want to thank and acknowledge those involved in the strong campaign that has been run by newspapers in the north, including The Bolton News and Manchester Evening News. All we want is a decent, safe, reliable rail service. I would like the Minister to ask the Prime Minister—clearly, the Secretary of State seems not to have dealt with this matter properly—to summon transport chiefs and business leaders to 10 Downing Street this week for an emergency summit to devise an action plan to get the region moving again, to announce a special compensation scheme for the passengers most affected by the delays and disruption, and to give Transport for the North the necessary policy and financial powers so that it can have full oversight of all local, suburban and regional services and work in tandem with Network Rail. It is quite clear, as has been pointed out, that our railways cannot be cared for properly from London.
The Government must commit themselves to a full and fundamental review of rail franchising. The Northern fiasco is just another example of franchisees over-promising and under-delivering. Will the Government also demonstrate a commitment to fair transport funding for the north, with a pledge to give the planned high-speed line across the Pennines equal priority with Crossrail 2 in London?
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Mr Howarth. I appreciate that many of your constituents in Knowsley have been frustrated in the past couple of weeks, whether travelling in the region or across the country. We heard about the issue in Monday’s urgent statement, of course. It was unprecedented: for 90 minutes 65 MPs of all parties relayed to the House the pain that passengers throughout the country were experiencing, including anxious students not able to get to college to sit vital exams, children late for school, adults late for work and, as my hon. Friend Yasmin Qureshi has said today, people who have lost their jobs. Family life has been disrupted and childcare made impossible; people do not know when they are going to get home of a night, and businesses struggle when staff do not arrive. In the heart of the tourist season there is the fiasco of trains being cancelled at peak times in the Lake district—we stand with the businesses there.
I was struck by the experiences of my hon. Friend Luciana Berger, who talked on Monday—column 63 in Hansard—about people who were fasting during Ramadan standing for five hours in blistering heat. Trains have been cancelled and delayed; they do not stop. People have been failed—“Northern fail” is the expression that comes to mind. The situation is not just in the north, but across the country. I know that passengers in the south-east in particular have also had years of that pain. We have a broken railway system.
I thank my hon. Friend Sir David Crausby, who eloquently highlighted the pain of his constituents, particularly the pain caused by Arriva Rail North. Electric trains in his area should have been running from Manchester via Bolton to Preston last year, but it will be lucky if they do so by the end of this year. Northern provides a poor service to passengers and they now have their worst punctuality rating in eight years. As we heard, only 83% of their trains arrived within 10 minutes of the scheduled time. Of course, in the past week things have got worse, with trains often being cancelled altogether at weekends.
The story for passengers in Bolton is one of broken promises, within a completely deficient system, and they are of course dependent on a completely deficient compensation scheme. As we have heard, it is far too complex for passengers to engage with, and it does not work for multimodal transportation, so fewer people claim on it. We have heard that disabled people and parents with prams have no chance of using the railway. At certain points on the line the trains are already packed, as there are too few carriages to meet the need. In the new upgraded rail system there is still a need to install the overhead gantries for the power lines at places such as Chorley, Bolton and Salford. However, because of poor ground conditions due to uncharted shallow mines around those locations, a third of the foundations were unsuccessful at the first attempt. All that work was outsourced to the failed company Carillion.
I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate—Mr Wragg, who put some pertinent questions to the Minister, and my hon. Friends the Members for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), for Bolton South-east, and for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams)—for sharing the impact of the rail meltdown on their constituents. The upset, anger and frustration that have been heard in the House this week are nothing compared with the actual pain that we have heard about directly from the public. Despite all that, the Secretary of State could not find it in himself to apologise for the part that he played. The only reason he remains in his post this afternoon is that the Prime Minister is too weak to sack him. All that we got was his belief that he was clever in apportioning blame to everyone but himself. Others are to blame—I grant him that; but the person in charge, at the heart of it all, is the Secretary of State. Perhaps the Minister will offer an apology on his behalf for the fact that he has utterly failed the British public.
So what do we know? Network Rail ran into serious trouble during control period 5, not completing many of the planned infrastructure projects, including promised electrification upgrades. Did the Secretary of State know? Yes; he personally intervened, cancelling many electrification projects. Hon. Members will remember that that was the day after the House rose last summer—presumably to avoid questioning of the kind that happened on Monday. The right hon. Gentleman announced that trains that do not even exist would run in the future, and said they would replace the planned new electric rolling stock as on the TransPennine Express route.
It is deeply offensive that new trains that cannot accommodate wheelchair users have been put on that line. We heard how Network Rail failed to complete its timetabling programme and how the Secretary of State, despite initial denial, knew that that was coming over the horizon. He said on Monday that he took calls weeks before the new timetable was due to be introduced, but in his statement he failed to mention that, with regard to a company limited by guarantee, he was the one person in charge—allegedly. Therefore he is fully to blame. If he neglected or negated his responsibilities he should resign.
People in the industry whom I have talked to have told me that the crisis was long predicted. When the company moved the timetabling function to Milton Keynes a significant proportion of the very skilled timetabling staff were lost, so there were not the personnel to do the work required. I have also been told that the process of rescheduling an entire timetable normally takes the best part of a year, and at least nine months. Given that the project commenced in earnest in February, it was not likely to meet its own timetable, to be stress tested and to be sure to work.
The glaring absence is the fact that the Secretary of State did not at any stage intervene and postpone the new timetable—and we learned why. He is, it now appears, the only person on both sides of an apparent Chinese wall dividing his Department. On a wing and a prayer he ordered that the timetable change should go ahead. There was a threat that the operators—the private, fragmented companies that he always defends—would sue him or the Department if the timetable was withdrawn. They had received promises from him on the new timetabling: that in May they would be able to run their new trains, on new infrastructure and at new times. Their financial structures, including how they would afford to pay their levies to the Department and how they would pay their shareholders, could not be delivered unless all the new slots ran on the promised terms in the new timetable, as set out in the franchises.
I think that we can expect law suits to come flooding in now. After all, those private companies’ sole reason for existing is to drive profit out of the state. Those rail companies had hired their new trains for the new electrified lines and expanded timetables. I remind Members that they do not own their rolling stock, but lease it by contract at an exorbitant rate from consortia of investment companies and fund managers. These private profit companies exist to drive profit out of the train operating companies, which in turn drive profit out of the state, taxpayers and passengers. They have disposed of their old rolling stock and moved it on to their next customers, while the new rolling stock cannot operate on the de-electrified lines—you could not make it up, Mr Howarth.
Then there are the train operating companies, and today we have heard much about Northern rail and its failure. It went ahead and signed contracts, demanding that services be run down to the bone. We heard how it cut the number of crucial staff to maximise its financial gain, and it failed to maintain or recruit sufficient staff to run on the new timetable. It knew what was coming over the horizon, and it failed. It is also trying to get rid of train guards, the very people at the heart of looking after the needs of passengers. We have ended up with not enough trains or staff to meet the needs of a rushed and untested timetable, although I must say that the staff have been phenomenal across the rail network, and we salute them for all that they have had to contend with over the past few weeks.
Only the Secretary of State and his Ministers sit at the top table and the interface of track, timetable and train. He knew about these challenges but did nothing. He let this chaos happen, either through sheer incompetence or by hoping that it would be the least worst option. He is the head of every decision, which is why either he must resign or the Prime Minister should sack him.
One subject that was not mentioned on Monday was how much all this will cost the public or passengers through future ticket increases. The money has to come from somewhere. I am sure the TOCs will call for compensation—they always do—and we also have the compensation scheme, and a commitment to a new compensation regime, which fellow MPs are already saying will be insufficient and that more will be required. Will students who were not able to sit their crucial exams, or businesses that could not open their doors because their staff had not arrived, be able to claim compensation? How much will all this chaos cost? I put that point specifically to the Minister, because ultimately taxpayers or passengers will pay, and they need to know how much it will cost.
This story will not end happily ever after. First we get a revised timetable that, as we have heard, has in many places been much worse than the original one. Then we get the mass cancellations across the service. We have heard that whatever timetable is applied, the chaos will run for months and months into the summer. What has the Secretary of State offered? An inquiry that will report at the end of the year. Thank goodness the Transport Committee, chaired by my hon. Friend Lilian Greenwood, will provide answers long before then through its own inquiry. The Secretary of State’s inquiry will not report until after the next set of timetable changes have been put in place in December, although I have heard that those changes have fallen behind schedule.
This chaos has forced passengers off trains and into their cars—a modal shift. We talk a lot about a modal shift across our railway system, but we aspire to it going the other way. When rail services do not work and fail the public, people jump back into their cars because they have no other option. That leads to more congestion on our roads, more frustration and more pollution to exacerbate our poor air quality. I am sure that the rail companies will challenge the Government about that fall in patronage.
The great British public have been completely let down by this Government and their failed rail model, and they are right to be furiously angry at the Secretary of State, who blames everybody else—the bosses at Northern rail, for example—while forgetting that he is in charge. That simply could not happen under Labour’s proposals for a new model of public ownership. We will scrap the juggling of multiple private company interests and have one rail service that works together in the interests of passengers. The Secretary of State could make a start by moving towards that model—that would massively satisfy passengers across the north—and he could take the contract away from Northern rail, and use his powers to start providing reparations for this complete disaster on our railways.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth, and I congratulate Sir David Crausby on securing this important debate and giving us another opportunity to discuss the disruption on Northern rail services.
The Department is focused on ensuring, as rapidly as possible, that the industry restores reliability for passengers to acceptable levels. I assure passengers who have been affected that I share their frustration, and we have heard from hon. Members across the House about how their constituents have been affected in a number of completely unacceptable ways. I echo my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s words of sympathy on Monday, as well as the apology that he gave to the House. That mirrored the apologies from the chief executives of Northern rail and Network Rail, as well as from train operators in other parts of the country, for everything that has gone wrong and for all the difficulties that have been caused to people in the north of England and other parts of the country.
The new timetable was introduced on
Northern’s new timetable was planned to improve services for passengers across the north, and it was intended to increase services by 1,300 a week. It was designed to give passengers the benefits of the unprecedented investment that we are making, including an expanded train fleet. It was also intended to take advantage of big infrastructure projects such as the Ordsall Chord, which has linked Manchester’s three main train stations for the first time, as well as the upgrade of Liverpool Lime Street and of tracks between Manchester and Liverpool. Further investment will deliver faster and more frequent services, with more seats, by 2020. That includes upgrading the route between Manchester and Blackpool via Bolton and upgrades to the Calder Valley routes, ahead of significant improvements to the transpennine route from next year. By 2020, all Northern and TransPennine Express trains will be new or refurbished, with—finally—the Pacer trains entirely gone.
A number of hon. Members mentioned the regional disparity in funding, which they indicated was part of an underlying problem. Going forward, we want to ensure that any disparity that there may have been in the past gets comprehensively addressed. I hope hon. Members will find it comforting that the Infrastructure and Projects Authority analysis of planned central Government transport investment shows that, over the next four years, the north will receive more investment on a per-person basis, at £1,039, than the south, at £1,029.
I want to go into more detail about what went wrong and answer the questions from my hon. Friend Mr Wragg about who knew what, when, and about why there was not adequate intervention if that was indeed the case. I will need to backtrack on the sequence of events. After the decision was taken in the summer of 2017 to de-risk the potential delay of infrastructure from the major timetable change in December 2017, Northern planned to introduce changes in two phases, in December 2017 and in May 2018, with the May 2018 change, recasting services around Manchester, being most significant. The planned changes for May were underpinned by planned line speed improvements and electrification of the route between Manchester and Preston via Bolton. As hon. Members have noted, that would enable Northern to operate electric rolling stock, freeing up diesel units to provide additional capacity on other parts of Northern’s route.
In line with normal industry deadlines, Northern submitted its proposed timetable for May 2018 to Network Rail in August 2017, and Network Rail agreed it in November 2017. Network Rail had expected to complete the work that would facilitate that timetable change before May 2018, but faced significant complexities based on the interconnectivity of the network and the planning by all operators, and in January 2018 it acknowledged that it was unable to complete the work as expected. Those delays were further exacerbated by the disruption caused by Storm Emma and the severe cold spell—the beast from the east.
After it became apparent that the Manchester to Preston electrification was not going to be completed for May 2018, Northern took on the task of wholesale replanning of rolling stock, staff rostering and driver training to accommodate the lack of wiring on that route. As hon. Members will know, that is because drivers have to undergo essential safety-related route training before trains can operate on new lines. For Blackpool, that meant retraining 400-plus drivers from all the depots that operate that route.
Were not some of the delays, and the causes of the delays, predictable? Surely there should have been contingencies in the upgrading process and plans that would have accounted for that. If that was not the case, what is the Minister doing on, for example, penalties in relation to the franchise so that he is able to claw back from the providers?
That is a good question, and one of the things that Stephen Glaister’s review will be looking at very carefully. It will look at all the processes that went into the creation of the May timetable and all the planning and preparation around it, to answer those kinds of questions and to see what lessons can be learned for future timetable changes, including the December timetable change. I will come on to compensation, if the hon. Lady hangs on for a second; I want to ensure that I complete the account of how we got to the May timetable change and what lessons we can learn from that.
I was talking about the training of drivers. Some drivers have been unavailable for their normal train-driving duties while they were and are undergoing that training. To make a difficult situation worse, Northern was unable to ask its drivers to work on their rest days for the last three months of this period, because, as hon. Members will know, ASLEF declined to extend the rest day working agreement that ended in February. That meant that Northern has not been able to absorb those exceptional or last-minute training needs and provide the additional flexibility for the train driver rosters that it needed to.
Let me turn to the questions about who knew what, when, and about where the DFT was in all this. In January, Network Rail informed the Department that it would not complete its upgrade of the Manchester to Preston route in time for the May timetable change. In response, Northern developed a new timetable in a compressed period and briefed stakeholders on the reasons why that was required. Following that, the late completion of the Blackpool to Preston blockade in mid-April meant that Northern had less time to complete those plans and its driver training. Northern then did not finalise its plan for the timetable until three days prior to its introduction. Industry readiness boards assured the Department and the Secretary of State that the timetable was ready for introduction, and the Department was not made aware of any expectations of high levels of cancellations.
Hon. Members have asked about compensation to reflect the significant inconvenience experienced by passengers. There is no doubt, and the Department accepts, that Northern passengers have faced totally unsatisfactory levels of service. I have met with many colleagues in the House, and I have also heard directly many stories from the travelling public of how the disruptions have impacted the lives of all those constituents.
It is entirely right for all those affected by the disruption to be properly compensated. I encourage passengers, in the first instance, to continue to use Northern’s Delay Repay compensation mechanism for affected journeys. Northern operates the Delay Repay compensation system for all its passengers. Under that scheme, as hon. Members will know, passengers are entitled to claim compensation for each delay of 30 minutes or more that they experience, whatever the cause of the delay. There are no exclusions for weather or other delays outside the control of the rail industry.
The Office of Rail and Road guidelines require train operators to respond to claims within 20 days of their receipt. Northern has assured the Department that it is working hard to respond to all claims within industry standards. I acknowledge the complaints that the hon. Member for Bolton North East has made about various aspects of the Delay Repay scheme. The Department is discussing with Northern ways in which we expect it to reduce its processing time for Delay Repay claims.
In his statement on Monday, the Secretary of State announced that, in addition to the standard Delay Repay compensation mechanisms, there would be a special compensation scheme for Northern passengers, subject to agreement by the board of Transport for the North. It is to be funded by the rail industry and will ensure that regular rail customers receive appropriate redress for the disruption that they have experienced. The industry will imminently set out more detail of the eligibility requirements and how season ticket holders can claim. However, the Secretary of State has already indicated, at a high level, that he expects that the scheme should offer Northern passengers who have experienced protracted disruption of this kind similar entitlements to those under Southern’s passenger compensation scheme last year.
I want to allow us a few days to refine the details of how the compensation scheme will work. We are working carefully with all players in the industry to ensure that a fair scheme is put forward that adequately provides redress to passengers. The Secretary of State has been clear that this will be funded by the industry. We will be bringing forward further details imminently, which I hope will answer the hon. Lady’s question.
What are we doing concretely to fix the problems that have occurred? Acting through the Rail North Partnership, the Department for Transport has put in place an action plan with Northern, which includes improving driver rostering to get more trains running now, increasing driver training on new routes, additional contingency drivers and management presence at key locations in Manchester, and putting extra peak services in the timetable along the Bolton corridor. Northern has also announced that, until the end of July, it will run fewer services than were original planned, per the May timetable, to give passengers greater certainty and to increase opportunities for driver training. I believe that this temporary measure is necessary to stabilise the service, enabling improvements to be introduced gradually. Northern will then get back to a full timetable service.
The interim timetable, rolled out on Monday, will see an approximately 6% reduction in the number of train services—about 165 out of the normal 2,800 daily services. Northern is expecting to start to see significant improvements this week, from today, as their drivers are fully rostered on to the new interim timetable. The timings for today, as of 10.35 am or so, saw Northern achieve 86% on the public performance measure. With 665 or so trains operated, 2% were very late or cancelled, which is about 15 trains. There is positive progress here. This is Northern’s best weekday morning performance since the timetable changed. That 86% compares with weekday out-turns of between 60% and 70% for the first two weeks following the introduction of the May timetable.
I have not heard an explanation of why Northern could not suspend bringing in the new timetable. The Minister has just outlined that the new interim timetable has made a difference. Why could it not have thought about bringing in an interim timetable in the middle of May, instead of the new changed timetable?
The May timetable is a big timetable change. It is roughly four times larger than any previous change over recent years of such timetables. It was a six-monthly timetable change. It was a very big change that reflected the massive investment that has been going into the rail system and all the opportunities to create new services across the country. In those circumstances, the timetable change did not just affect Northern and Thameslink, it affected every train operation in the country. All those other train services around the country had interlinkages with the train services being run by Northern, Thameslink and other Govia Thameslink Railway services.
As a consequence, simply suspending the timetable was not possible, because all the other train operators had put in place their own driver rosters and driver training programmes for all the other services running across the rest of the country. Not introducing the May timetable at that point would have been a far worse and more disruptive solution. This is progress. We recognise that there is significantly more to be done. We want to get back to where we were meant to get to, which was the full introduction of the May timetable, as soon as we can, but we want to do that gradually and to reintroduce services as soon as we can, once the appropriate driver training has taken place.
How can we ensure this does not happen again? As I have mentioned, work has begun to set up the independent inquiry into the timetable, implementation and deliverability of future timetable changes. That will be chaired by an independent transport expert, the chair of the current independent regulator, the Office of Rail and Road, Professor Stephen Glaister. In parallel to the inquiry, the Department for Transport is assessing whether Northern met its contractual obligation—a subject which a number of hon. Members asked about—in the planning and delivery of this timetable change. We will carefully assess Northern rail’s planning, risk assessment and resilience in preparing for the May timetable change.
We are currently reviewing whether Northern is in contravention of the franchise agreement. If it is found to be so, it would be referred to the Department’s enforcement advisory panel. The purpose of that panel is to review any contraventions of the franchise agreement fairly and consistently across all franchises. It will seek to respond in a consistent manner where different train operators commit similar contraventions, taking account of the Department’s enforcement policy and previous enforcement decisions, and will recommend the appropriate response, including any remedial plan or enforcement action, if required.
Work has been underway over the last few weeks on this question, and we expect to come to a conclusion as soon as is reasonably possible.
In assessing whether Northern has breached its franchise agreement, it is important to bear in mind that there are other players in this story and Network Rail is an important one. While bearing in mind Network Rail’s failure to deliver the infrastructure I mentioned on time, I want hon. Members to be assured that we will hold the operator to the terms of its contractual obligations.
I want to give the hon. Member for Bolton North East a chance to wind up at the end. I thank all colleagues for their contributions. I remind them that once this phase has been completed, passengers on Northern will benefit from 1,300 extra services a week. Rail users of Northern have much to be hopeful about in the future of their rail services. Brand-new trains will soon be introduced, building on the improvement to timetables and stations already made in recent years. We are working closely with train companies to drive down cancellations and will support Network Rail and the wider industry in delivering these significant improvements.
Mr Wragg raised the question of promises. Let me tell him that I have had enough promises to fill a small filing cabinet from Northern rail. When I last met Northern rail and it made further promises, I said, “I’ll put them with the rest of them and believe it when I see it.”
My hon. Friend Kate Green talked about winning back confidence and the issue of compensation. It occurs to me that compensation is absolutely vital, because nothing will focus the mind of an operator such as Northern rail more than money. Not only must we ensure that passengers are compensated; the operator must be deterred from delivering such a poor service.
My hon. Friend Debbie Abrahams talked about timetable issues and the question of removing the franchise. I did not hear the Minister talk about removing the franchise, but I was pleased to hear that it is at least being looked at. It does need to be seriously looked at, and certainly a little more than it has in the past.
My hon. Friend Yasmin Qureshi talked about family stress and the devolution of power to the north. I can tell the Minister that there is a perception in the north that if this had happened in London and the south-east, the Army would have been called in, Northern would have had the franchise removed and the Secretary of State would have been sacked already. Whether that is fair or not, that is how people in the north feel. There is an important job to do to ensure that that is not how people see it.
In conclusion, I want to see a better service that is fit for local people. That is something that we should all have in common, so that we can move forward without any political prejudice.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered Northern services in Greater Manchester.