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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 5th February 2019.

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

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?