GWR and Network Performance — [Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 5th February 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Labour/Co-operative, Cardiff South and Penarth 9:30 am, 5th February 2019

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the Great Western Rail (GWR) delays and performance across the network.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for generously accepting my application for this urgently needed debate on the Great Western rail franchise, and the many colleagues from across the House who supported it. It is good to see so many colleagues from across the network in the Chamber; they will represent the concerns of passengers from across the network and the difficulties that they face. It is clear that the deteriorating GWR service affects many hon. Members and their constituents.

I also thank those who shared their stories and frustrations about GWR’s failures on the RailUK Forums and the Great Western passengers forum, and my constituents who did so on Facebook and Twitter. I thank the Parliamentary Digital Service for its outreach work in support of this debate, and the House of Commons Library and my office for helping to compile a list of some of those concerns.

Carmel, who commented on one of the forums, summed up the situation:

“Terrible customer experience with travel and website use. Cannot rely on the train service to get me to work on time despite my rail fare going up year on year. Cancelled trains, delayed trains, high cost...Hopeless and frustrating journeys day after day. Poor Wifi, ridiculous paper filling out to get a refund on tickets. Makes life very stressful for commuters.”

Those are some of the issues that I will touch on.

Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Solicitor General, Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Security)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the way he is leading this very important debate. On that point, my constituents who have contacted me say they want to use the train service more often and not drive to work, but they cannot, due to the issues that my hon. Friend identifies—particularly those relating to reliability. Does he agree that that is simply not acceptable any more?

Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Labour/Co-operative, Cardiff South and Penarth

Absolutely. I concur with that point. It is a great tragedy that the service problems are turning many potential rail users on to the roads. We do not want that to happen, particularly in the south Wales corridor.

As the Library helpfully summarised for Members in the debate briefing, Great Western Railway is currently run by FirstGroup under a direct award that is due to expire in March 2019. The Department for Transport decided to exercise its option to extend the direct award until April 2020, and we understand that it plans to negotiate another direct award for two years until April 2022. It took that questionable decision despite the fact that, as the Library outlined, Great Western’s performance has seriously deteriorated of late. That is reflected in the declining levels of passenger satisfaction on its part of the network. The autumn 2018 national rail passenger survey revealed that passenger satisfaction was just 78%, and had declined from 84% when the survey was conducted three years earlier. Even more shockingly, only two thirds of GWR passengers were satisfied with the reliability of trains, and only 40% were satisfied with the way GWR handled delays.

The Great Western route is unusual in that it is hugely wide geographically. It stretches right along the historical south Wales and west country main line, famously developed by Brunel, and serves the M4 corridor and the commuter lines into the Thames valley. Crucially, it also goes down to the south-west, Devon, Somerset and Wiltshire. It is a lifeline for many communities. People rely on it for commuting between those regions and travelling to and from London.

There have been substantial problems on the network for the past few years, a variety of which have hit the headlines. The bulk relate to the delayed and altered electrification programmes, the responsibility for which lies with the DFT and Network Rail, and to the introduction of the new trains. Surprisingly, the Department extended the franchise without adequate consultation or consideration. The problems include serious delays, poor service, delays in processing compensation claims and other concerns about performance include catering issues, failures relating to reservations and the management of rail replacement services at crucial periods.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Arts and Heritage)

On the point about new trains, does my hon. Friend find it staggering that the trains that have been commissioned for use on the line are in some cases worse than the old 125s, which were introduced in the 1970s? People cannot even walk the entire length of the trains that have been bought, so they can be stuck at one end of the train with no catering services. Even if there is a perfectly adequate trolley on the train, it may not be able to get to them because the train is split into two units.

Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Labour/Co-operative, Cardiff South and Penarth

Indeed. In fact, I had that experience myself on the last Great Western train that I took. There was hot water in only half of the train—there was no hot water in the toilets or for the catering services. The staff simply shrugged their shoulders and said, “We see this problem all the time.”

I met Hitachi yesterday to discuss some of those concerns. I have to say that it has been very frank and forthcoming about the issues it has experienced with engineering the new trains. Unfortunately, that is what happens if a new fleet is rushed into service without adequate testing and operation time, and without redundancy and additional rolling stock. Great Western’s old HST fleet was sold off to Scotland before enough of the new trains were ready and functioning. That is why many of the problems have happened.

I am disappointed that, despite the many meetings that Members from both sides of the House have had with Great Western management, a blame culture seems to have developed among GWR, Network Rail, the Department for Transport and in some cases the developer of the new rolling stock, Hitachi. As I said, Hitachi has been frank and honest about the problems it has faced and what it is doing to deal with them, but the net result for passengers is poor service. I am sorry to say that the managing director of GWR, Mark Hopwood appears out of touch in relation to some of the problems, and unwilling or unable to get a grip on the litany of failure over the past few years.

Photo of Jo Stevens Jo Stevens Labour, Cardiff Central

Does my hon. Friend share my frustration that, despite the litany of complaints about service, GWR’s franchise keeps getting renewed? The Government do not seem remotely interested in performance and passenger satisfaction levels.

Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Labour/Co-operative, Cardiff South and Penarth

I completely agree with my constituency neighbour. The reality is that the service was underperforming and declining, and yet GWR was given an extension, and could be given another one. Most passengers would find that extraordinary.

Our railways are a vital public service for all our constituents. I want to cover the price hikes, the delays, the new rolling stock, compensation and the electrification problems. Trains are increasingly overcrowded. Many constituents have contacted me and have even sent pictures of the overcrowding on Great Western services, particularly on the London-Reading leg, where the service is very disappointing.

Research released this week by Transport Focus, using results from the national rail passenger survey, which focused on 1,458 GWR passengers, shows that overall satisfaction has gone down and sits at a poor 78%. Only 49% of the group felt that the GWR services provided value for money. Meanwhile, season tickets prices continue to skyrocket. They have gone up by 20% since 2010, and some tickets have gone up by 30%. More fare increases were announced at the start of this year. It is good to see the Chair of the Transport Committee in the Chamber. She made that very clear in her comments in November. She said:

“After the year passengers have had, any increase in rail fares is going to be unwelcome. But 3.1 per cent—the largest increase we’ve seen since January 2013—represents a real kick in the teeth.”

That is what my constituents and others who have posted comments on the forums are telling me.

One of my constituents, Mark, spoke about the Cardiff-Portsmouth service, specifically through Trowbridge and Fareham. He said that, until December, he was able to book in advance and get a return for about £20, but since the new year the same journey, departing and arriving at the same time, has almost doubled in price, and yet the service is poorer. His words say it all: the trains are “always packed” and “often delayed”.

Others have shared similar experiences. Azriel said that GWR’s prices were “outrageous”, and that trains were always “very full”, and echoed other comments that point to the frustration that many of us have about the south Wales corridor and the fact that the electrification, which has been delayed and complicated, will stop in Cardiff. It will not even go to Swansea, as was promised.

Photo of Jo Stevens Jo Stevens Labour, Cardiff Central

My hon. Friend is being very generous in giving way. A standard return rail ticket to London from my constituency, Cardiff Central, costs £242. For the same price, passengers could fly from our Welsh Labour Government-owned Cardiff airport to Barcelona and back three times, and they would still have change for a taxi home. Is it any wonder that my constituents are giving up on using GWR? Does my hon. Friend agree with them?

Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Labour/Co-operative, Cardiff South and Penarth

I completely agree with them. My hon. Friend’s constituency neighbours mine; they are either side of Cardiff Central station. If someone goes out the front, they end up in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and if they go out the back, they end up in my constituency. I hear the same stories all the time. Many people have told me that they are turning to driving, instead of using trains. They have called train travel on GWR trains “unbearable” and “awful”. One said:

“Since the new rolling stock was introduced on long distance services, I have driven long-distance more as the new trains are (for me and my partner) unbearable.”

Photo of Lilian Greenwood Lilian Greenwood Chair, Transport Committee

My hon. Friend is making a very compelling case on behalf of his constituents. When the Minister replies, he will no doubt say that the Government are investing record amounts in our rail network, and of course he is right, but the problem is that, due to the fragmented nature of our system and the lack of co-ordination, that investment is not leading to the improved services that passengers expect. They understandably feel very angry about having to pay higher fares when they are not seeing an improvement in service. Until that is fixed, there will not be the trust in the rail industry that we want.

Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Labour/Co-operative, Cardiff South and Penarth

I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend, who chairs the Transport Committee. Later in my speech, I will come to some of my own views on that, which have been known for a long time. We should have a co-operative, publicly owned service, and a different model for our railways in which we bring the different parts of the system together.

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour/Co-operative, Swansea West

Since 2010, Wales has received 1.6% of investment for 5% of the population and 11% of the railway network. Over a longer period, it has been only 1%. That is fatal under-investment in Wales. There has not been a lot of investment and we need more.

Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Labour/Co-operative, Cardiff South and Penarth

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. What a contrast with the new investment announced by the Welsh Labour Government for the services for which they are responsible. The new Transport for Wales services have recently encountered many difficulties, but I am absolutely convinced that with new rolling stock, the new services will be hugely improved. The Welsh Government are investing in those services.

Photo of Chris Elmore Chris Elmore Opposition Whip (Commons)

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way; he is making a well-informed speech to represent his constituents, as he always does.

On the Welsh Government’s investment, does he agree that it is ironic that over a number of years we have seen little to no investment in stations—including in my constituency, in Pencoed, Tondu and Maesteg—yet that remains the responsibility of the UK Government? If it were not for the Welsh Government finding avenues to bring about station improvements, we would see very limited changes. The Welsh Secretary says, “I want to extend the line all the way beyond Carmarthen,” yet the Department for Transport does not invest in the infrastructure to achieve what is supposedly his grand design for rail infrastructure in Wales.

Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Labour/Co-operative, Cardiff South and Penarth

Indeed; aspects of the process, including which services are covered and where the investment goes, can be confusing for passengers and for our constituents.

I will come back to train delays and cancellations, which are one of the primary concerns that my constituents contact me about. Claire told me,

“At least I've been able to take my booked trains this year. Last year 50% of the trains on which I'd booked a seat were cancelled.”

LZ said,

“Appalling, over-priced service. For nearly 2 months in October and November 2018 I travelled between Frome and Bristol 4 times a week…and it was ON TIME just 3 times! The carriages are dirty, too cold in the winter and in the summer trains were cancelled for being too hot.”

The House of Commons Library briefing that I mentioned absolutely confirms that performance has seriously deteriorated. It says that in the last four quarters, fewer than 85% of GWR services have arrived at their final destination within five minutes of their scheduled arrival time.

Research by Which?—interestingly, it just opened a support office in my constituency—ranked GWR 20th out of 30 UK train companies for commuter rail services, with an overall customer score of just 47%. It received just two stars for punctuality and value for money, which are both critical aspects of train travel. When ranked for leisure rail services, GWR also ranked 20th out of 30, and achieved a slightly higher—although not very good—customer score of 56%.

The latest statistics from GWR’s own website, for 9 December to 5 January, show that only 90.7% of trains were punctual within their five minutes on-time allowance—below GWR’s own target for punctuality. That is extraordinary. The reasons for those delays—based on my investigations and conversations with different stakeholders—appear to be a series of problems, including delays and overruns of electrification works; staff shortages and aspects of staff training, to which inadequate time is dedicated; failures of new rolling stock, with the DFT introducing new trains without an adequate testing period; and delays in delivery while old stock was transferred early to Scotland, which left no contingency.

There is also another series of issues to do with communication and confusion among the different parts of this convoluted system, between which a blame game has developed. GWR will blame Network Rail and the Department for Transport; Hitachi will blame the Department and GWR; Network Rail will say, “It’s not us, guv, it’s the GWR franchise owners and the Department for Transport.” That is simply not good enough. In a tweet, the Welsh Labour leader of Newport City Council said to me that the high fares, such as a £200 return from Newport to London, are

“outrageous, especially when you have to stand all the way to Swindon on the return journey.”

She also mentioned the delays and cancellations.

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston Conservative, Mid Worcestershire

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way—he is being extremely generous with his time. His point about customers’ and constituents’ frustration about the delays is an important one. In my patch in the west midlands, where GWR also operates, those frustrations are often driven by a lack of staff. That causes frustration to the extent that, when they have a choice, some of my constituents drive up to 45 minutes to use an alternative railway line. Does he agree that that does that not make sense for my constituents and is disturbing for them, and does not make sense for the company either?

Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Labour/Co-operative, Cardiff South and Penarth

Indeed—nor does it make sense for the environment and reducing carbon emission, which we all know is crucial. I feel quite sorry for the GWR staff at times, because they do an incredible job and work very hard. When speaking off the record, they are often just as frustrated about the lack of training and support that they are given. They often have to deal with complex problems, such as failures of the new rolling stock, when they have not been given adequate support to do so.

I will mention some of those particular problems. On the new trains, there have been door failures. We get frequent complaints about the seats, which are supposedly ergonomically designed but are some of the most uncomfortable seats someone could ever sit on. As for catering, we were told that they were going to get rid of the buffet cars on the London to Cardiff services, but that was not what passengers wanted. Often, a trolley with no hot water comes through, and it will only go through half of the train—that is if it can get through the train because, of course, if the train is overcrowded, it cannot. There have been issues with train safety systems failing, with the reservations system simply not working, as well as generator problems caused by the fact that bi-modal diesel and electric trains are running more on diesel because of delays to electrification. As a result, the engines sooted up and failure rates rose.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Conservative, Cheltenham

Does the hon. Gentleman share my frustration about the announcement —one sometimes hears it over the tannoy—that there is not a train crew available to drive the train? Does he share my concern that there seems to be a lack of planning, as well as potential skimping on preparing sufficient resources to crew the trains?

Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Labour/Co-operative, Cardiff South and Penarth

Indeed; I have experienced that, particularly with services departing from Paddington, which should be one of the easiest places to have train crews available, as well as relief train crews if there is a problem.

As a result of all that, GWR has had the third largest increase in complaints rates in the country—behind Northern and Grand Central—with complaints rising in the last quarter. Like Grand Central, a reason for the increased volume of complaints is the quality of the train, as well as delays and cancellations.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East

My hon. Friend has not yet mentioned the problems faced by people with disabilities and mobility issues when travelling on trains. I was at a recent meeting with a group people who were mostly wheelchair users or had other mobility issues, and they have problems with ramps not arriving, the wheelchair space being blocked, and not being able to get through the train because it is so packed. Does he share those concerns?

Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Labour/Co-operative, Cardiff South and Penarth

I certainly do—I have seen aspects of that with my own eyes. People with disabilities and, interestingly, people with bicycles who want to travel with them on board, complain about the lack of access on such services. We are supposed to be making the railways as accessible as possible to people, whether they cycle in, use wheelchairs or have other mobility issues. We are simply not doing well enough.

Claiming compensation is another serious issue. Which? research from last year revealed that train companies, including GWR, were providing misleading advice to passengers about their rights by making blanket statements that they were not liable for consequential losses. Hon. Members may be aware that Great Western currently offers only delay repay 30 to London Thames Valley route customers. Other passengers are eligible for delay repay 60. I have been delayed for 40 to 50 minutes many times, but was not eligible for any compensation. The number of people choosing to pursue a claim is relatively low in comparison to the number of people eligible. That is partly due to the failures of the compensation system, which is very complex to navigate. According to Which?, only 51% of people said that they would know how to find information about claiming compensation. Clearly, there is a gap.

One figure reveals all: how can it possibly be acceptable that GWR has had to pay out £22.6 million in compensation for delays between 2015 and 2017? That raises a very serious question for the Minister about whether the franchise should be extended or renewed in any way.

We have also seen problems with electrification, and the National Audit Office made a critical report about that—how it had been managed, the overall cost increases and delivery delays. I accept that that is not GWR’s fault; it is an issue for the Department for Transport and for Network Rail. Again, however, the seeming lack of communication at various points between GWR, the train manufacturers, the DFT and Network Rail has resulted in more problems, with trains having to operate in a way that they were not designed for and needing expensive overhauls and modifications to cope, let alone the huge disappointment about the cancellation of electrification to Swansea and other locations across the network.

Station management has been touched on, in particular at Paddington, and although Cardiff Central, where we see confusion, is managed by Transport for Wales, a lot of GWR services go through it. Other issues include accessibility of toilets, for disabled customers in particular, or toilet facilities not even being available; ticket barriers not working; the failure of rail replacement services, notably over Christmas, with no co-ordination of buses and trains, and many people being delayed even further; and of course the provision of information to passengers.

My view of what is to blame has been clear for many years. It is the separation of track from trains brought about by privatisation, the fragmentation of network and franchises, and the consistent lack of political leadership and oversight—epitomised in extremis by the current Transport Secretary, I am sorry to say. It is time to take back control of our railways and to return them to public ownership or, even better, in my view as a Co-operative MP, to move them to a public co-operative or mutual model, in some combination that brings together the best of a passenger or consumer and staff-led service, where everyone has a stake, and fragmentation in the system is simply reduced.

Many commentators and experts have written important works on how to run our railways in future. Back in 2011, Christian Wolmar did a report for the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association, and in 2012 an ASLEF and Co-operative party report by Professor Paul Salveson looked at issues in Wales. The Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend Rachael Maskell, have made clear their support for a “people’s railway”, which would deal with many of the issues.

I have three simple questions which I hope that the Minister will address in his response. What are the DFT doing to hold GWR to its franchise commitments, and does he agree that the issues raised today are unacceptable? What justification did his Department have for extending the franchise, and is he considering further extensions? Why has the DFT set such unrealistic targets for the new rolling stock, and does his Department take responsibility for any delays?

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee

Seven Back Benchers wish to speak, which gives about six minutes each. That is a guideline, rather than set a time limit.

Photo of Jessica Morden Jessica Morden Opposition Whip (Commons), Chair, Statutory Instruments (Joint Committee), Chair, Statutory Instruments (Select Committee) 9:52 am, 5th February 2019

I thank my hon. Friend Stephen Doughty for securing this much needed debate on Great Western Railway. It allows me to talk about performance and delay problems in south-east Wales, including cross-border ones, and the service to Cardiff. One of the issues that I receive most correspondence on, in particular now the Severn bridge tolls have gone, is the poor quality of cross-border GWR services between Newport, Severn Tunnel Junction and Bristol.

Over recent years, the railway network in our area of south-east Wales has been plagued by chronic overcrowding and unreliable services, which have simply not adapted to growing demand. It is worth emphasising that over the past two decades, Severn Tunnel Junction alone has experienced a staggering 297% increase in station entries and exits, which will only keep growing. More people are moving to our area to commute to Bristol—we have some of the fastest-rising house prices in the UK—and it is estimated that the station’s catchment area will include more than 65,000 within the next decade.

In the past year, passengers on key commuter services between Bristol and Severn Tunnel Junction have endured regular incidents of short-forming, cancellations and delays, compounded of course by the unprecedented level of engineering works on the network in 2018. Statistics from GWR show that weekday closures were up by 66% on 2017, and weekend and overnight work up by 145%. Clearly, work to repair, modernise and improve the tracks and the service offered to passengers is welcome, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth said, there is little good feeling among passengers that what they are getting is good value for money for the increasing costs of their commutes, especially compared with many other areas in Europe.

Since 2010, the cost of a season ticket between Newport and Bristol Temple Meads has risen by 38%, and between Newport and Cardiff by an eye-watering 45%. No wonder commuters are feeling fed up. As my hon. Friend said, that is reflected in the most recent Transport Focus rail passenger satisfaction survey, which showed overall satisfaction with GWR services at its lowest level in more than four years. The survey also showed that between 2017 and 2018, passenger satisfaction with GWR’s punctuality and reliability fell by 4%, and passenger satisfaction with levels of crowding fell by 6%.

I have expressed concerns about overcrowding and reliability directly to the managing director of GWR, and he has met constituents. I am grateful that he has been attentive to the problems. He has stated frankly that services were not good enough in 2018 and that customers had every right to feel frustrated. He assures me that we can expect some tangible improvements this year, given that the programme of training for drivers on new or improved rolling stock is nearing completion, and given progress on the switch to a newer fleet of local trains.

Over the next few months, however, GWR is still due to be working with a transitioning fleet of trains, which limits flexibility and has the potential to lead to delays. It is therefore important for the operator to redouble its efforts to ensure that any disruption to passengers is minimised. Communication with passengers is key—it is key for people to know what is going on over the next few months.

Locally, I am pleased that the peak Cardiff to Portsmouth GWR services, which are used by commuters to Bristol boarding at Newport and Severn Tunnel Junction, will be permanently upgraded to five carriages by the end of year. That is long overdue, and the sooner in 2019 that change can be delivered the better. The service has been nicknamed the “Sardine Express”. People have been left on platforms and told to travel in toilets, people have fainted, and people have suffered many other incidents of chronic overcrowding just trying to get to work. I understand that GWR is also working on plans to increase morning and evening peak services between Cardiff and London Paddington. That is much needed, and we need further details soon.

It is important that we see what time savings are possible from the trains and electrified lines once they are in place, although it would be far preferable for us to have a proper electrified line from London to Swansea. The Government’s decision to cancel the full electrification of the main line remains a strategic blunder, and an unforgivable snub to the people of south Wales.

While I am on the subject of where the UK Government have failed our Welsh train lines, I look forward to the Williams rail review addressing UK rail investment in Wales. As many hon. Members have said, despite Network Rail’s routes in Wales accounting for 11% of the route length, 11% of the stations and 20% of the level crossings in England and Wales, since 2011 an average of only about 2% of money spent on network enhancements in England and Wales has been spent in Wales. We should have received far more than that.

To conclude, the promise of improved services in 2019 is welcome, but we will continue to hold GWR and the Government to account on cross-border rail services. My constituents have endured a poor quality of service for far too long. Ultimately, the best way to keep fares down and to ensure that services are run in the interests of passengers rather than profit is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth said, to bring our railways back into public ownership.

Photo of Derek Thomas Derek Thomas Conservative, St Ives 9:58 am, 5th February 2019

I am glad to be able to speak in this debate. Thank you for giving me the opportunity take part, Mr Betts. In this place, we often speak about things that we do not have personal experience of. However, as the MP for Penzance, the furthest south-west part of the country, I can claim that I have experience when it comes to railways, and Great Western Railway in particular, because I live so far away.

I want my tone to be positive, but it is true that I have seen delays. One time, about 12 Conservative MPs took about 12 hours to get just from Devon to London, missing several votes. That could have been dealt with better by Great Western Railway. However, that was some time ago, and we have not seen a repeat lately. It is also true that far too often the washbasins have no water, which is important for basic hygiene, let alone anything else. Furthermore, the refund experience for delays has not been good enough. From speaking to Great Western Railway, I understand that it gave that job to another company, but it did not go so well. I believe it has been improved.

It is very easy to complain; if we use trains a lot, we can always find reason to moan about something. Obviously, we want value for money, but the truth is that on our rail network, not just in the south-west but across the country, there has been enormous growth in passenger numbers. Since 2010, in Cornwall and the south-west, the number has grown far more than anyone ever expected. There are infrastructure problems right the way down the south-west, but the figures provided by the Library show that there are only 79 complaints for every 100,000 journeys. I represent about 100,000 people across my constituency. I would be quite glad to receive just 79 complaints. I imagine many other industries and sectors have a higher rate of complaints.

Many comments were made about price. It is a fair point that people who pay the maximum to go down to Cornwall spend huge amounts of money. However, when I came up on Monday, my advance single was just £19. That will please those who look closely at my expenses. I want to take a more positive tone, but that may change, because from 17 February, as Luke Pollard knows, there will be major disruption on the network because of Network Rail’s tunnel improvements. I am not yet sure how I will get here.

I want to talk briefly about my constituents right at the end of the line in Penzance, who have seen 36 brand-new inter-city express trains. That is over and above what the Government ordered. Many of them are specifically to service the route in Devon and Cornwall. I do not recognise many of the concerns raised today about those trains. I do not hear from constituents the complaints about the new trains that have been expressed in the debate. Far from selling all its old rolling stock, Great Western Railway has retained 11 trains purely to serve the Cornish economy and is beginning a half-hourly service. In the near future, passengers will be able to go a platform anywhere in Cornwall and get a train within half an hour. That is a significant connectivity improvement for those living in the very rural south-west part of the country.

Great Western Railway has worked with councils and others to invest more than £22 million in a train care centre in Penzance—a massive piece of infrastructure. Often, Cornwall is a poor cousin when it comes to big schemes such as that, so we are delighted to have new skilled jobs, apprenticeship opportunities and huge investment in the heart of Penzance. The sleeper carriages have been completely refurbished. Those who use the sleeper will see a dramatic improvement from the carriages that served for many decades to the plush new carriages. I am not sure whether they are four or five star, but they are certainly very comfortable. I recommend that the Minister and others come right down to Penzance; people are reluctant to do so, but the sleeper service is excellent.

Great Western Railway is expanding depots at Exeter and elsewhere to allow for the half-hourly service. There are positive things to be said about what is happening on our rail network right down to Penzance. If someone were to drive down to Penzance today, they would find a whole load of roadworks in St Erth, which is the last major junction before Penzance. I do not want to discourage anyone from going on holiday, but they should take the train. The roadworks are happening because of the huge investment in the station, which will boost our economy and tourism. People will be able to get to the train station, park their car and get on the railway to go to all corners of the network—Penzance, St Ives and elsewhere. That is a real boost for tourism and a real opportunity to provide much-needed improvements to infrastructure. There was more investment in infrastructure last year than in any year since Brunel built the railway. It is no surprise that there will be some disruption to our journeys. I am confident that there will be better performance, better trains, better capacity and a better timetable.

We are getting to the five-year anniversary of when the railway washed into the sea at Dawlish. Those images are permanently fixed in the minds of those of us who live down there and were cut off for several weeks. People around the world saw the intense damage to that section of the railway. There is no way that Great Western Railway can be held responsible for the delays in getting a solution. The solution has not yet been absolutely confirmed, and I take the opportunity to say to the Minister that we must make progress. We will not be forgiven if there is another catastrophe such as that, with no progress to improve that part of the infrastructure.

There has been major transformation and increased demand, and we should expect teething and growing pains. Mr Betts, I wonder whether you could give me some advice. When our children grow, they go through teething, which can be a very stressful process for them and their parents. They then develop into puberty, which again can be a stressful and difficult process. Is it your suggestion that we hand our children over to the state, or that we continue to work with them and enable them to grow, flourish and make the contribution to society that we want them to? As Great Western grows and develops and the network improves, and we go through growing and teething pains, I suggest that we stick with the commitment to improve infrastructure, to support our industry and to get the services we deserve in the far south-west.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee

All the advice I can give is for Members to stick to six minutes.

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Fisheries, Flooding and Water) 10:06 am, 5th February 2019

I congratulate my hon. Friend Stephen Doughty on securing this debate. Great Western needs to answer questions not just on the Welsh lines, but on the service to the far south-west. It was good to hear from Derek Thomas about Great Western’s service to the far south-west, but I am afraid I am not drinking the Kool-Aid in the way that he is. We need huge improvements.

Today marks five years since Dawlish was washed away. We all remember the hanging Peruvian rope bridge images. Five years on, there have been sound bites aplenty, and we have had press releases and promises coming out of our ears. If we could lay those press releases next to each other to form a railway, we would have the best train line in the world, but we cannot; we need the money. I really hoped that there would have been a funding announcement to coincide with the five-year anniversary, to show that Ministers get it. Instead, we seem to have half-cancelled visits, planning applications submitted without the funding to go along with them and a lack of understanding about when the money will come.

The far south-west needs and wants its fair share of rail funding. The programme for which Network Rail has submitted a planning application seems to be a good step forward, which would improve not only Great Western services but CrossCountry services that use that piece of track. We need the Minister or the Secretary of State to announce the money. They do not need to come to Devon to do that; they could make their announcement in Whitehall, or the Minister could make it today. All we need is confirmation that the money will come. To date, we have not had that, and the lack of funding for our train line grates on people in the far south-west.

Photo of Andrew Jones Andrew Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

The hon. Gentleman mentioned half-cancelled visits in reference to me. I know there was a media story about that yesterday. I have never been scheduled to visit Devon; I am afraid that that is just incorrect. I am very happy to ensure he does not inadvertently mislead the House.

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Fisheries, Flooding and Water)

I thank the Minister for doing so. If he has not planned to visit, I encourage him to do so, so that he can see the problems we are having at Dawlish.

Photo of Andrew Jones Andrew Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

Did the hon. Gentleman just tell me not to bother visiting, but say in the next sentence that I should visit? I look forward to a visit, but I ask that he be consistent.

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Fisheries, Flooding and Water)

I think the Minister is confused. I would like him to visit, and to reach into his pockets and give us the funding we deserve. I would like the Government of which he is a part not to have spent five years presiding over promises of jam tomorrow, but no funding. I am happy to have this back and forth, but people in the far south-west just want a train line that works, so that Great Western and CrossCountry services will not be cut off.

Five years on, the situation is not good enough, and we need that announcement today. If the Secretary of State visits the west country in two weeks’ time—I hope he does—I hope he will realise that he should have made that announcement months if not years ago, so that we would not be in the situation we are in today.

The anger that people in the far south-west feel is similar to that mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth. Yesterday I asked people on Facebook, and they told me about their decisions to drive from the far south-west to Bristol or London because it is cheaper and faster. People mentioned problems with accessing trains as a result of the high cost, which people on disability living allowance cannot afford. I agree with my hon. Friend that the staff who work for Great Western Railway do a good job, but they are let down by a system that does not give them the focus they need.

Some things, however, have changed. On timetable changes, the half-hourly GWR service from Plymouth to Cornwall was supposed to start in December last year, but because of the timetabling chaos presided over by the Government, it has been delayed until December this year. Can the Minister reassure us that that service will start in December this year, and that passengers will not have to wait any longer for it?

I am grateful that we have new trains in the far south-west. They are a different model from those used in the service to Wales, and I would like the Minister to inject an element of transparency into any problems with the new trains along the Dawlish sea wall. I hope that the new trains will not encounter the same problems as the Voyagers do on the CrossCountry service, but if they do encounter problems, the best thing that the Minister and Great Western Railway can do is to be transparent and open about those problems rather than hiding them away. We need honesty in the far south-west about our funding and services. I agree with the hon. Member for St Ives that the sleeper service is better than it was, but we need that level of improvement right across our network.

The key point about the train service in the west country concerns whether someone can afford to get a train. The high price of train tickets is deeply disturbing, especially in Plymouth, which has a low-wage economy. Not everyone can afford the cost of train tickets to London, Bristol or other parts of the network. We need a train service that is resilient and has a long-term investment plan. This is not just about people getting the train. For us in Plymouth a decent, fast and resilient train service is totemic to our identity as a region. It tells a story about whether our region is open for business, and about whether Ministers will put their money where their mouth is and fund that train line properly. I hope that when he concludes the debate, the Minister will announce that there will be money. I fear that we will get more promises of jam tomorrow with no funding announcement, but I hope the Minister will prove me wrong.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Conservative, Cheltenham 10:12 am, 5th February 2019

The train line between Cheltenham and London is critical—I have likened it in the past to an artery, because it is responsible for nourishing so much of Cheltenham’s prosperity. That has never been truer than it is today, because Cheltenham has exciting prospects with things such as the cyber-park, which will allow start-up businesses in that crucial sector to grow and develop, and will bring prosperity and opportunity to people from all walks of life. However, there is no doubt that the service provided by Great Western Railway is not at the level we need it to be.

Last summer we had a really concerning situation because, as I said to Stephen Doughty, there were insufficient train crews. When I raised the issue with GWR, it said, “Well, some people are training and so on”, and although that was terribly interesting, it was not a satisfactory explanation. To be fair, GWR recognises that it needs to improve, but even if it does I have a lingering concern about one crucial factor: the cost. Even for somewhere such as Cheltenham, which has a higher per capita income than the national average, the cost of a walk-up ticket is completely prohibitive. Again, it is not a complete answer to say that people must book in advance. If we want an agile economy in which people need to get on a train and go to London, it is not appropriate to say simply that that option is effectively not available to people because of the cost.

What is so invidious is that the cost per mile from Cheltenham to London is so much higher than in other parts of the country. The reasons for that seem opaque and are lost in the mists of time; they are linked to the structure that prevailed at the time of British Rail. That has got to change, particularly because although the cost per mile from Cheltenham is so much higher than it is elsewhere, the speed is slower. For example, a train journey from Exeter to London—200 miles—is quicker than one from Cheltenham to London, which is less than half the distance.

It is important to place this issue in a wider context, because it has not been all bad. GWR has been responsible for significant investment in Cheltenham Spa station, and we look forward to the opening of the car park in due course, with more than 80 additional spaces and an improved forecourt. The Swindon to Kemble line has been redoubled, and we look forward to sub-two-hour trains to London later this year. Those important service improvements cannot come soon enough, however, because the risk is of a modal shift away from trains as my constituents decide that instead of getting on a train at Cheltenham they will drive to Swindon, Kingham, Kemble or elsewhere—the point about pollution and so on has already been made.

Where does that lead us in terms of public policy? The drumbeat for renationalisation is growing louder—one can hear that from those on the Opposition Benches—but I respectfully counsel against it, because it is not the solution that a lot of people hope it might be. First, it would be extremely expensive to renationalise the railways, and that would mean taking precious resources away from other sectors. Secondly, my real concern is that were the railways to be nationalised, if it came to a bidding war between the NHS and railways, the NHS would win. If it came to a bidding war between schools and railways, schools would win. If it came to a bidding war with any other precious public service, railways would be likely to come off second best.

I am just about old enough to remember the state of British Rail. It was atrocious: old, dirty, clunky rolling stock, and unspeakably awful food. Although I have some sympathy with the idea of renationalisation—there can be limits to privatisation, particularly when dealing with public goods that have a natural monopoly—we should be careful what we wish for.

Photo of Matt Rodda Matt Rodda Shadow Minister (Transport) (Buses)

The hon. Gentleman makes interesting points about public spending. Does he agree that the current Government are already making a significant investment in High Speed 2? Surely, any Government would balance their investments and spending on a number of different projects. In addition, the current franchise system is hugely costly and is using large amounts of public money very badly.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Conservative, Cheltenham

It is true that the system uses public money, but it comes down to how much public money, and what is the proper balance. I simply make the point that although it is easy in the abstract to suggest that if the railways come into public ownership, fares will come down and quality will go up, I suspect that is unlikely in reality. If I am looking for additional funding for my local oncology centre, compared with more rolling stock, I think I know which one I and many colleagues would prioritise.

If train operating companies want to enjoy public support—they do not enjoy enough public support because they are the author of their own misfortune in many circumstances—they must raise their game in two particulars. First, they must be more reliable, and secondly they must be more competitive in their pricing structure. Otherwise, the people of Cheltenham, who I represent, will feel that they are getting a raw deal. Public services must be for the people, and GWR needs to raise its game.

Photo of Karin Smyth Karin Smyth Labour, Bristol South 10:18 am, 5th February 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Stephen Doughty on securing this debate and giving us the opportunity to speak on behalf of our constituents. Every delayed journey has a personal story, whether that is a missed connection for a holiday, or being late for a crucial job interview or hospital appointment. For all the promises we have been given, as we have heard, the figures remain poor.

I wish to talk about the increase in delays and the level of compensation offered to GWR customers, compared with those of other train operators. First, however, I will touch on the promised electrification. The delays and disruption to our current service have been significantly affected by the failings and mismanagement of the electrification programme by the Government and Network Rail. The electrification programme offered much in the south-west. We were promised increased capacity, improved reliability and a better passenger experience, but it was so poorly managed that costs rose by £1.2 billion in 2015 alone. I was on the Public Accounts Committee at the time, and our report into electrification called the situation “staggering and unacceptable”.

I recall the decision, in 2016, to defer the electrification project for the key sections between Bath Spa, Bristol Parkway and Bristol Temple Meads. At one evidence-taking sitting of the Committee I asked Department for Transport leaders whether they had looked at the devastating effects that that would have on the local economy around Bristol South. I was told by the then permanent secretary that the impact would not be “perceptible”. That attitude reinforces the need for more local control over decisions that affect the city’s infrastructure. They should not be left to civil servants in Whitehall with no understanding of local economic needs.

To add insult to injury, the complete mess that was made of the electrification project in our area was spun as a positive thing for passengers. We were told that the pausing of the programme meant that it would be possible instead to embark on customer improvements and to offer passengers benefits that newer trains with more capacity would provide, without the requirement for “costly and disruptive” electrification works. We were promised sleek new Hitachi trains, with more seats, more leg room and better wi-fi. Views differ about the trains. Personally, I quite like the seats. However, the catering is totally pot luck, and the split trains make boarding a nightmare. As to the quiet carriage—there is no indication that it is one. We certainly do not feel that the quality of the experience has improved. The issue remains. The Government made promises to us about electrification and investment in the infrastructure of our city, which is a net contributor to the Exchequer, and which is struggling with air pollution and would like the promises fulfilled.

Despite the lofty promises of 2016, the statistics today speak for themselves. Problems are on the rise, as has been set out in the very good Library briefing for the debate. Most critically, in each quarter of 2017-18 the proportion of trains cancelled or significantly late was greater than in the previous quarter—a trend that accounts for the decline in passenger satisfaction across the network. I understand that GWR’s response has been that improvements to the service have caused short-term disruption, but I expect we would all like to know how long the short term can go on. My constituents have suffered long enough at the hands of the chaos between the Department for Transport, Network Rail and Great Western Railway.

That brings me on to the issue of compensation. There is gross inequality in the amount of compensation being offered to passengers by the different rail operators across the country. The extent of the anomaly was first brought to my attention in July by a constituent who was suffering perpetual delays in her daily commute, with all the negative knock-on effects that that can bring. I wrote to the Secretary of State and argued that it cannot be fair that some train operating companies offer refunds for delays of over 15 minutes, whereas others offer them for delays of over 30 minutes—including, bizarrely, GWR on its Thames valley route. However, GWR does not offer refunds on 30-minute delays on the route serving my constituents. I also highlighted the discrepancy between the levels of refund paid by GWR for 60-minute delays. On local routes serving Bristol it is 50%, and yet on high-speed trains it is 100%. I urged the Secretary of State to seek amendments to the national rail conditions of travel, to reflect best practice in the industry, and to define 15 minutes as the new criterion for being late.

Three months later, the then Rail Minister replied and explained that the national rail conditions of travel was a national standard, setting out minimum standards, and that most train operating companies offered more than the minimum required. That is not an awful lot of good to my constituents. The reply also set out details of the Government’s Delay Repay scheme, which compensates passengers for significant delays and cancellations based on the fare paid, with 50% for delays of 30 to 59 minutes and 100% for delays of over 60 minutes. I am pleased about the new scheme, but, as the Library briefing highlights, previous initiatives have shown that it can take many years to bring about such changes. Based on previous initiatives, the Library estimates that the new version of the scheme would not be rolled out until the mid to late 2020s. That means years more injustice for my constituents who suffer poor service that is unacceptable. However, I try to remain hopeful. The letter informed me that the Department has requested GWR to implement the scheme before the current contract expires. The managing director of GWR also told me that the operator is engaged in discussions with the Department and that it would like to introduce the scheme, although it has not yet been finalised. That was some three months ago.

I want to ask the Minister today what the outcome of those discussions was. Will he confirm that GWR will indeed introduce the Delay Repay scheme in 2019, as previously indicated, so that I can reassure my constituents and they will no longer be caught in the bad-tempered arguments now going on between the train operator, the track operator, and the Government?

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour/Co-operative, Swansea West 10:24 am, 5th February 2019

Briefly, we are, in the first instance, talking about problems with the trains. On the new trains there are problems with the toilets. When someone washes their hands in the sink, water goes all over the floor, and in fact water starts to seep out of the back of the toilet; that is to do with the way they are manufactured. There are fewer toilets and some carriages do not have them. I do not mean to be preoccupied with toilets, but some trains have arrived at Bristol without any carriage with a toilet.

There are issues with wi-fi not working, and with plug sockets between the seats. I found myself in a situation where there was a sleeping woman in the neighbouring seat, and fiddling around to plug a device in can be slightly embarrassing. There is no buffet car and the buffet trolley cannot get down. There are problems of cost, punctuality and cancelled trains. There were eight carriages in the old trains, and now there are two lots of five. Sometimes one of the fives is cancelled at short notice, so that people who have booked particular seats are affected. Families cannot sit together and people with disabilities have to stand up. Those are appalling standards for customers.

As to more strategic issues, as I mentioned earlier, Wales has 5% of the population, about 1.5% of the investment and 11% of the track, so we have been grotesquely underfunded. Since 2011 we have had about £198 million and we should have had £600 million. Electrification to Swansea was cancelled—that was another £700 million; and Network Rail cancelled a further £1 billion. The chronic under-investment has meant that standards simply are not up to scratch. The service to Swansea from Paddington is often only hourly, and it takes three hours. On High Speed 2, people will be able to get to Manchester within an hour. I could compare the Leeds and Manchester area with the Bristol, Cardiff and Swansea area—which is 3 million people. We get two trains per hour on the Bristol to Cardiff bit, and fewer to Swansea, as I have said. In the Leeds and Manchester area there are six trains per hour, and of course an investment of £3 billion is being made in the trans-Pennine upgrade—on top of the £52 billion for HS2. We are grotesquely underfunded, and our economy suffers massively.

Trains run at 125 mph in England, but when they get to Wales their speed goes down to 60, 70 or 80 mph, because we have not had the investment in the track. That is not a western powerhouse, but more of a 19th century infrastructure. After years of under-investment it is time for change and investment. What we do not need is the Secretary of State for Wales coming along with his penny-farthing idea of an extra little Swansea parkway station, hoping that he can pat us on the head and give us a Brexit bung so that we will vote the right way.

We need investment in a Swansea metro, strategic infrastructure and connectivity between the Bristol conurbation, Cardiff and Swansea, so that we can grow a regional hub for the future. I hope that some of the leadership for that can be taken by Transport for Wales—the UK Government obviously have other things to think about—and that with the right money and the right governance we will get the right result. As we approach the appalling disaster of Brexit, we need investment in our infrastructure now, to give us a fighting chance of building prosperity in south Wales. That requires investment, planning and UK money, and it requires the Welsh Government to be given the steering wheel.

Photo of Matt Rodda Matt Rodda Shadow Minister (Transport) (Buses) 10:28 am, 5th February 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. A number of excellent points have been made with which I want to associate myself, particularly in the speeches of my hon. Friends who represent seats in south Wales—there were several, so I will not mention them all by name—and of my hon. Friends the Members for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) and for Bristol South (Karin Smyth).

Obviously, fast and efficient rail services are hugely important to commuters and businesses in my area. Reading has more inward commuters from other parts of Berkshire and nearby areas than people commuting to London. The railway is a crucial part of the economic infrastructure across the Thames valley towards Bristol and, indeed, to south Wales. The importance of the growth strategy for south Wales and towards nearby parts of England has just been described by my hon. Friend Geraint Davies.

I am glad that my hon. Friend Karin Smyth enjoyed sitting in the seats in the new Great Western trains. I rarely get a seat. This morning was a typical example; I was standing up all the way from Reading, which was manageable but certainly not ideal. My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West is absolutely right about the quality of the trains. Although it is good to see new investment—we obviously want that—there has been quite serious mismanagement of it. The internal fitting of the new trains leaves a lot to be desired. The lack of a buffet car, the issues with toilets and a number of other practical issues seriously affect people. That can begin to wear down those who are commuting every day, and is deeply frustrating for many people, not least thousands of my constituents.

As if on cue, I was delayed by 10 minutes this morning and last night I had to put up with half an hour of chaotic mismanagement by First Great Western, which was perfectly timed for this debate, as though it was waiting to help us make our point.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on raising this issue. There has been an average 3% fare rise on First Great Western services since the start of the year, with similar hikes throughout the UK, but at the same time there are talks of a reduced service. Does he agree that at some stage this House and this Minister must underline in a real and meaningful way that the profit margin is not the final consideration? The No. 1 consideration is that the service is viable, that a service is provided to those who need it most and, if the service is not there, that there is compensation. Those three things are necessary and must be in place before we go forward.

Photo of Matt Rodda Matt Rodda Shadow Minister (Transport) (Buses)

The hon. Gentleman draws on several points that I and colleagues are due to make or have made.

I come back to the issue of delays and quite how frustrating they are for daily commuters in towns like Reading and Slough, in addition to the sensible points made earlier. It is deeply frustrating to have to deal with delays on a daily basis. It has a huge impact on family life and on people’s desire to work in London or to commute into Reading, Slough, Swindon or other business centres along the line. I am sure that applies to the other towns and cities represented here today. It is a deeply frustrating daily occurrence for hundreds and thousands of people in this region, which is a crucial part of our railway network.

I have a series of questions for the Minister about the performance of GWR and the Department for Transport. I will address both infrastructure investment and the management of the railway. First and foremost, why on earth did the Government delay electrification along this line? We have heard about the benefits that south Wales would have had if it had been properly managed. We have also had delays to our rail services because of the lengthening of the roll-out of electrification. The installation of the gantries was hugely delayed and on a number of the local lines that feed out from Reading, such as the lines to Basingstoke, Southampton, Oxford and Gatwick, we do not have that level of investment. Commuters using those lines, including many of my constituents and others in neighbouring constituencies, are suffering and would like to see more electrification, not less. It is a huge issue.

Photo of Wera Hobhouse Wera Hobhouse Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman has put his finger on that very important point. In Bath, where we suffer from massive air pollution, electrification has been stopped. That should certainly be a priority, particularly looking at air pollution. Why has the electrification through Bath not continued?

Photo of Matt Rodda Matt Rodda Shadow Minister (Transport) (Buses)

The hon. Lady makes an excellent point about pollution. There are three aspects of pollution that are deeply challenging in my area. The first is air pollution from soot and nitrous oxide. The second is the effect on global warming. Electrifying the railways should be the low-hanging fruit in tackling global warming, as it is obviously going to take carbon out of the atmosphere. It is a huge disappointment to many people that the Government have not seen it as a key priority.

The third point, which may affect colleagues in other urban centres, is that as part of the botched electrification, the train maintenance depot in Reading was moved. I believe that that has happened in other areas. We now have diesel locomotives, which should have been taken out of service, revving their engines at 5 o’clock in the morning outside terraced houses in Reading, because the maintenance depot was moved as part of the works. That is completely unacceptable and there is an ongoing legal dispute between Reading Borough Council and First Great Western, so I will not go into further detail. Noise pollution is a substantial additional problem as well as air pollution and carbon dioxide pollution, which all seriously affect towns and cities along the line and the lives of people who live near the railway.

My second question for the Minister, which is also blunt, is, why has First Great Western’s franchise been repeatedly extended, given all the poor performance issues? I hope that as a new Minister, he will investigate that.

Time is pressing, but I would like to point out that I disagree with the Government’s policy of large increases in season ticket prices. That has a direct impact on people in my constituency and along the line, as we heard earlier. I draw the Minister’s attention to the fact that commuters are already having their salaries squeezed. Many residents in Reading and Woodley commute to London, or to nearby towns. They live in an area with high house prices and rocketing private rental prices, and at the same time their season tickets are going up by very large sums. That means that families, couples and single people are facing large cuts to their disposable income, which has a significant impact on their ability to enjoy life, especially family life. The Minister should address that and rethink this problem.

The railway is a vital public service that could—and should—be run much better. Investment is a key driver for jobs and growth in the Thames valley and along the whole railway corridor. However, as we have heard, there is a clear contrast between the poor performance of the current Government and a much more sensible long-term strategy. Colleagues have mentioned the importance of bringing the railway back into public ownership.

I will highlight that contrast in three simple points. I have mentioned the Government’s poor management of electrification, and that areas such as Reading, Wales and others have suffered severely. There are other aspects of mismanagement, including the cost to passengers of high fares and delays. In contrast, the Labour Government paid for the vast majority of the rebuilding of Reading station, which is a huge asset to our town and to travellers up and down the network. An incoming Labour Government would invest in electrification, and, most importantly, bring the railways back into public ownership. I believe that that would dramatically improve the quality of life for rail travellers and for businesses that are reliant on the railways.

In my opinion, rail is a vital public service, and the evidence clearly shows that. It brings economic benefit to our region. Given that the Minister is new in this post, I ask him to rethink the Government’s policy and to look again at the dogma and failed economic views that have led to mismanagement, to the chaos of the franchising system, and to the lack of investment in capital infrastructure.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Shadow Minister (Transport) 10:37 am, 5th February 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under you in the Chair, Mr Betts, for yet another crucial debate about our railways.

Over the last few months it feels like I have been taking a tour of our nation, as I have felt the pain of passengers who have been badly let down by the way in which our rail service has been run. We have seen cases of incompetence in governance under the Secretary of State, how the whole franchise system is broken, and the cost of that failure to passengers. We have also heard loud and clear the cry for one integrated rail service, in public ownership. It will be a new model of public ownership—unlike the myths peddled by Alex Chalk—that moves the debate forward into a new era of rail. I say to Derek Thomas that it is 25 years since the Railway Act 1993, so it is clear that the broken model has gone through its growing pains and that it is time for change.

The model that we are promoting will address many of the issues and concerns that hon. Members have raised in the debate, not least those raised by my hon. Friend Jessica Morden, when she talked about the cross-border issues that are hampering the connectivity that we need. We are ambitious, but we are real; we are radical, but we will work within the parameters of the possible. Yet again, I put on record my thanks to industry, individual experts, the travelling public, trade unions and staff, for their engagement in building a plan for a modern integrated transport system, with rail at its heart.

My hon. Friend Stephen Doughty opened the debate eloquently, not only speaking powerfully on behalf of his constituents, but advocating innovatively for reform. I know the Welsh Government have sought to bring about reform of the railways in Wales, but they have had their hands tied by the centralist approach of our Government and the Secretary of State for Transport himself. Perhaps that was most noticeable, as we have heard today, when the Secretary of State, without consideration for improving connectivity, reliability and economic opportunity for people in Wales, with the stroke of a pen cancelled the rail electrification programme beyond Cardiff. That shameful act denied some of the poorest parts of the UK the economic opportunity to reach their full potential.

I would like the Minister to explain to me how the cost of the electrification upgrade ran out of control. The project was costed at £1 billion when the work was first identified under a Labour Government for the full 216 miles of the route; the cost rose to £1.7 billion in 2014, to £2.8 billion under the Hendy review, and now to a staggering £5.58 billion. The cost ran away with itself under the coalition and Tory Governments. I further ask why, when the economic chances of passengers in Wales and of Wales itself were cut, the Welsh Government were not able to access the £700,000 to invest in improvements to their public transport system. That would have been an obvious response, especially given the under-investment in transport in Wales, which my hon. Friend Geraint Davies highlighted.

Instead of moving things forward, the Secretary of State announced that passengers beyond Cardiff would need to travel not on the new electric trains—we have heard about the multitude of problems with those—but on bi-modes. We have heard even more scandal about how the bi-modes just do not work. Those trains will still bellow out dirty diesel; they are heavier, more expensive to run and more demanding on the infrastructure. As my hon. Friend Kevin Brennan highlighted, there have been further problems with the new rolling stock. We have certainly heard that it has not addressed the real issues of congestion; we heard about the “Sardine Express”, and other hon. Members such as my hon. Friend Matt Rodda have highlighted how hard it is to get a seat on the trains.

Sadly, that is what we have come to expect from the Secretary of State. Thank goodness we have creative and forthright Members of Parliament such as my hon. Friends, who truly speak up for our whole population in Wales and the south-west on these matters and have put forward, yet again, a real case for urgency in bringing forward the transition to a modern railway system.

Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Labour/Co-operative, Cardiff South and Penarth

My hon. Friend is making some strong points. Would she agree that the innovation shown by the Welsh Government is in stark contrast to the DFT? For example, in my constituency, they are working with a local business partnership involving Investec, Nigel and Andrew Roberts and others to develop a new St Mellons Parkway station in the east of the constituency, which is currently under-served by rail stations. That is an innovative approach, with Government working with the private sector to see that development go ahead.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Shadow Minister (Transport)

What the Welsh Government have been able to demonstrate is that rail is not an entity in itself, but is fully integrated into the economy and connected with other transport routes. I thank my hon. Friend for bringing that point into the debate.

The most powerful arguments I have heard in this debate have come from the voices of passengers, which hon. Members have reflected. We have heard their pain and their stories of woe. The fact that passengers across this line are paying 20% more but getting a worse service is frankly unacceptable.

We have heard about innovations that are needed to upgrade stations and making them safe. My hon. Friends the Members for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) and for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) both highlighted how disabled people need a proper service, not only at stations, but on the trains themselves, which has not been delivered even with the new rolling stock. There is a catalogue of problems that must be resolved. My hon. Friend Luke Pollard gave the most powerful of speeches in making the case that, five years on from seeing the railway at Dawlish washed into the sea, the Government have yet to drive forward a programme to protect the whole of that vital south-west economy. We must see peninsula rail moving forward at pace now to protect the economy there.

Of course, we have the route itself, which is crying out for focus and proper governance. We have heard how the Delay Repay 15 system has not been introduced in an expedient way, yet this is a line that has had three direct awards, which will shortly total nine years, when it only had a franchise for seven years. Surely the Government can set the terms to protect the interests of passengers, but they have failed to do so. I would like more accountability from the Minister when he responds on why they keep issuing direct awards, which clearly shows that the franchise system is completely broken and does not enable the state to demonstrate that it can run the railways far more efficiently.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Shadow Minister (Transport)

I will not, because of time. As frustrations have grown, we have seen satisfaction plummet; we have heard how vexed and unsatisfied passengers are with the poor service on that line.

It was last year’s timetable fiasco that really brought all those issues into focus. Staff themselves, as some hon. Members have highlighted today, have been professional and incredibly patient in their dealings with the public, and have received a quantum of abuse in trying to keep people safe through this time. It is not their fault, after all, that the Secretary of State meddled in the planned timetabling process by changing his mind over the projects he was cutting. It is not their fault that the private companies could not get their act together to have the trains delivered and up and running on time, with proper testing of the system. It was the Secretary of State who failed to hold the companies to account. It is not the staff’s fault that Network Rail, which is accountable to—guess who?—the Secretary of State, failed to deliver the infrastructure on time.

Photo of Derek Thomas Derek Thomas Conservative, St Ives

Will the hon. Lady give way on that point?

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Shadow Minister (Transport)

I do not have time, I am afraid.

The Secretary of State, who treats this vital public service as if it were his own personal train set, is culpable for the pain experienced by customers. It demonstrates the weakness of this Prime Minister that he is still in post. Those who have sought recompense for their loss have clearly seen an inequitable response in terms of the compensation they can access; we have heard today that half of passengers do not even know how to access the compensation system, and that the network itself has paid out £22.6 million in compensation over a period of just two years.

This Government, as my hon. Friends have highlighted, have made promises to passengers time and again, and have let them down badly. Let us get Britain moving again, as our Labour Government will when we come to power. We have a plan; we just need the power.

Photo of Andrew Jones Andrew Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 10:47 am, 5th February 2019

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I will start by thanking everybody who has contributed to the debate, and congratulating Stephen Doughty on securing it in the first place. Many issues have been raised, and I will try to address as many as I can in the short time allowed, so I must press on fast.

The question has been asked, “Are the Government investing in railways?” The answer is yes, of course; we are investing a record amount to deliver more reliable, more comfortable and safer journeys for our rail network. Alongside our investment in infrastructure, we have delivered new, more reliable trains on the Great Western main line. There has been a change, however, in the way we approach investment in the next funding period. In the past, we focused very much on enhancements, but we are now focusing more of our £48 billion budget on reliability, and particularly on repairing and replacing the worn-out parts of our network to increase reliability and punctuality.

Photo of Andrew Jones Andrew Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

Oh, crikey—go on. I am always generous about giving way.

Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Labour/Co-operative, Cardiff South and Penarth

The Minister mentioned reliability; I sat with Hitachi, the manufacturers of the new trains on the Great Western service yesterday, and they took me through their own reliability stats, which they admit have not been good, particularly with the introduction of the new trains. Basic things were missed, such as fitting them with filters to deal with pollen and seeds in summer, which meant record breakdown levels last year, during the hottest summer on record since the 1970s. Surely there was some problem with the commissioning of those trains in the first place?

Photo of Andrew Jones Andrew Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

With interventions that long we will really have to scamper. I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s argument. New rolling stock often brings with it some kind of teething period, as we have seen throughout the history of our rail network, but the bottom line is that we are seeing new trains deliver a better service.

The modernisation of the Great Western main line will improve more than 100 million passenger journeys each year and will stimulate economic growth from London, through the Thames valley, certainly through Cheltenham, to the Cotswolds, the west country and south Wales. I fully recognise how vital this service is in not only connecting people but driving the economy.

I also recognise that GWR’s performance last year was not good enough and fell well short of passenger expectations. As a result, GWR worked with partners across the industry and put in place a performance improvement plan, which, although there is of course still more to do, has seen GWR move from delivering 72% of trains between south Wales and Paddington on time six months ago to more than 90% today.

The December timetable change was successfully introduced. The industry significantly reduced planned timetable changes to minimise the risk of severe disruption, which has served to stabilise services and to improve timetable efficiency. In the future, we will stage timetable changes, rather than having one big-bang approach.

I am clear that I expect GWR to do everything it can to minimise cancellations and other disruptions to services. It agreed to and implemented a contractual performance improvement plan, which includes a wide variety of activities across the whole franchise area to improve performance for passengers, including matters under the control of Network Rail.

Photo of Nigel Huddleston Nigel Huddleston Conservative, Mid Worcestershire

The Minister is right that there is nothing MPs like more than a bit of railway or GWR-bashing every now and again. However, we need to acknowledge some of the positives. My patch will have a new station, the Worcestershire Parkway station, which will be of huge benefit to my constituents. I just need to make sure that the trains run through it on time.

Photo of Ed Vaizey Ed Vaizey Conservative, Wantage

Talking about new stations, will the Minister meet me, colleagues and staff from GWR and Network Rail to talk about a new station in Grove in my constituency, which could be part of a network of two or three stations connecting Oxford and Bristol? As more houses are built in the south-east and south-west, local connectivity, alongside inter-city connectivity, is vital.

Photo of Andrew Jones Andrew Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I most happily agree to meet my right hon. Friend.

Questions were raised earlier about how the industry is held to account. The answer is through the Office of Rail and Road, the industry regulator, which holds Network Rail to account for its performance and takes enforcement action in the event of unacceptable performance. The Government will hold franchise holders to account when things go wrong by enforcing their franchise agreements, with contraventions dealt with under the terms of those agreements and in accordance with the Department’s general management compliance process. Evidence of that can be seen in the recent action taken against Govia Thameslink Railway.

Passenger satisfaction is obviously critical and will remain an absolute focus for me as an incoming Minister. Colleagues raised questions about the governance of the area, and I am pleased to see that Network Rail has joined forces with the regional train companies, GWR and Heathrow Express, to create a new joint supervisory board to drive improvements. This is the latest stage of the companies’ commitment to working closer together to improve the passenger experience.

Investment in transport infrastructure has been a long-standing problem across the UK. We have not invested enough in our transport infrastructure over decades, which applies to Governments of all colours. However, I do not think that that accusation can be made against this Government. We are investing £48 billion in our rail network in the next control period.

Photo of Andrew Jones Andrew Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I am running out of time. There will also be more electrification works in this period. The electrification to Newbury and to Bristol Parkway was introduced this year, and we are working to complete the electrification to Cardiff later this year. When all that is complete, we will see benefits including journey time improvements of 15 minutes, which is a significant change.

Fares were mentioned. I remind colleagues that we are in the sixth year of capping regulated fares in line with inflation. We have introduced a railcard for 16 and 17-year-olds, and the industry has introduced a railcard for 26 to 30-year-olds, so basically everybody under 30 will be able to access discounted rail fares. It might also be worth reminding Opposition Members that, in its last year in office, the Labour party gave passengers a 10% fare increase, and that, where Labour now has the capacity to run the railways, through the devolved Administrations, we have also seen fares increase in line with inflation. I gently say to those colleagues that they have been saying one thing but doing another.

Perhaps it is worth further reminding colleagues how many miles of the Great Western main line Labour electrified when it was in office—zero. How much new inter-city rolling stock did Labour introduce when in office? Absolute zero. I understand the comments from Opposition Members, but it feels rather like the arsonists complaining about the amount of time it has taken the fire brigade to arrive.

Photo of Andrew Jones Andrew Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

No; we are out of time.

Several colleagues raised Delay Repay 15, which will be standard in all new franchise agreements. We are also working very hard to make mid-term contract changes to existing franchises, and we are very close to getting that agreed. I will keep colleagues informed of the progress.

We are about to run out of time. I thank everybody who has taken part in the debate. We have covered a wide range of issues, although I am quite sure that we have not been able to cover every single point. I recognise the work taking place at Dawlish, to which we have committed £15 million, and I look forward to going down there. Protecting that line is a national priority, and we will continue to invest in it and to develop solutions to improve its resilience.

I look forward to seeing many areas of the route transformed by December this year, with the new services and new trains that I mentioned. We will continue to introduce improvements during the franchise continuation period. I hope that 2019 brings a further improved service for our constituents and others served by this franchise who are constituents of Members who were not able to be with us today. I assure everybody that the Government are working hard to ensure that the rail industry delivers the service that our constituents rightly expect.

Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Labour/Co-operative, Cardiff South and Penarth 10:57 am, 5th February 2019

I thank the Minister for his comments. I very much appreciate the number of colleagues from constituencies across the Great Western network who have come to take part, including those from the other side of the House. They made their points with eloquence and seriousness on behalf of their constituents. I am deeply disappointed that the Minister chose to respond in the tone and with the lack of detail that he did. These are serious issues, and it is simply not good enough to gloss over them with a bunch of statistics, warm words and rhetoric. Passengers deserve better.

There is clear evidence that the services are not good enough. GWR admits that they are not good enough, the independent assessors admit they are not good enough and the House of Commons Library shows that they are not good enough. Reliability is not increasing, and is actually getting worse in some cases. Overall passenger journey satisfaction on GWR services is going down, not up. It is frankly time that the Government, the Secretary of State and this Minister got a grip and took some interest in what is actually going on at GWR, rather than simply glossing over the circumstances, and responded to the serious points that have been raised. [Interruption.] The Minister is chuntering from a sedentary position. The reality is that he has not answered a single question put to him today by Members from across the House and has not engaged with the issues in a serious way, instead simply glossing over them with statistics. He has not answered the serious concerns that have been put. This is very disappointing from the Minister and his Department, but it is what we have come to expect.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered the Great Western Rail (GWR) delays and performance across the network.