Henry Smith MP Adjournment Debate on Govia Thameslink Rail Service

Full text of the Adjournment debate put forward by Henry Smith MP in the House of Commons on 12th September 2016, and the response from Paul Maynard MP, Rail Minister.

Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): I am here this evening on behalf of constituents who continue to suffer unacceptable delays and cancelled services when simply trying to travel on the Govia Thameslink Railway network. Many, across the network, suffer daily difficulties getting into work, with some employees now facing disciplinary action, and others missing precious family time in the evenings, because they are stuck on platforms. As a daily commuter to London, I know this all too well; this has been the case for almost 12 months now.

I thank right hon. and hon. Members from all parts of the House for their attendance at this hour. I also express my gratitude to the new rail Minister and publicly thank him for coming to Three Bridges station in Crawley on one of his first visits following his deserved appointment in July. As right hon. and hon. Members from across the Chamber will be only too aware, all of our constituents who travel on this network are affected. The cross-party nature of this issue is underlined by the composition of the all-party group on Southern rail, set up in this Parliament in the interests of passengers. The cross-party work of the group is shown in its co-chairs: my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) and the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle).

On 11 July, 341 services on the Govia Thameslink network were removed, to counter the disruption that resulted from the so-called “staff sickness” situation at the time. Last week, on 5 September, 119 of those services were reinstated—however, Sussex passengers have yet to see any benefit. On the same day, the Minister stated:

The remaining trains will be reinstated to the timetable incrementally in the coming weeks.”

That is, of course, welcome news, but is he able to offer any further update about the discussions he has had on this matter with both GTR and Network Rail?

I am also grateful to representatives from GTR for coming to Crawley in August and speaking at a public meeting I organised in front of an audience of more than 150 constituents. This meeting came a few weeks before the Government announced a package of measures, which I welcome, to improve the resilience of the Southern network, including a £20 million fund. At that meeting, one of GTR’s representatives told us how the new franchise had struggled to make a profit. The following week, it was announced that GTR’s parent company, Go-Ahead, posted a profit of about £100 million. A number of my constituents have, understandably, asked me in recent days why taxpayers are paying for the £20 million of improvement works announced in the last fortnight. I would be grateful if the Minister addressed that point, particularly with regard to any discussions he may have had with the company in this regard.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on, yet again, debating probably the most debated train operating company in the country, and I echo his words of welcome for the greater sense of urgency that the new Minister has ​brought. Does he not agree that, given the profits recently announced by the parent company and the considerable amount of revenues in this company, at the very least those many thousands of passengers, particularly the season ticket holders—our constituents—should receive some significant compensation when they are renewing their season tickets, to go some way to making up for the shambles they have had to suffer for the past 12 months?

Henry Smith: My hon. Friend anticipates a couple of points I will raise in a few moments, but I agree with him that the Department for Transport needs to look at the cost to season ticket holders in particular, when it comes to the new year. I will come on to mention the need for more swift compensation for those passengers who have been adversely affected.

Of course, as well as the £20 million of investment, the Government have announced a new project board. The Department has said that this is to achieve a rapid improvement to the service, and I sincerely hope that this means we will see benefits in the weeks ahead, rather than in the months to come.

Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. As he says, he is speaking for all of our constituents whose lives are being wrecked by the incompetence of this rail company. Does he agree that that new project board might do better if it had more passenger representatives? Passengers feel locked out from many of the decisions that are being taken, but I understand that there is going to be only one of them on that board.

Henry Smith: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for intervening, and I pay tribute to her for the cross-party way in which Members in this House are seeking to address this issue. Again, she anticipates a matter that I will be coming on to deal with. Greater passenger representation is very important, as indeed, as I will mention, is reporting back to us—the elected representatives in this House.

Although the project board will see closer working together between GTR and Network Rail, I hope the Minister will in, addition, work to facilitate talks between GTR and the RMT, to prevent the continuation of the current situation where the union undertakes further strikes and causes even more misery for passengers.

I am sure that colleagues from both sides of the House will welcome confirmation that, as the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) said, there will be a passenger representative on the review board. I and Members on both sides of the House continue to try to ensure that the voices of our constituents are heard as this situation goes on. I trust, as I said a few moments ago, that elected representatives will be a part of the process and that there will be greater passenger representation. I welcome the fact that the new project board head will report weekly to my right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary and my hon. Friend the rail Minister. I would appreciate assurances that Minsters will update the House on the board’s progress.

​Nusrat Ghani (Wealden) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend for bringing the issue to the Floor of the House. Does he agree that even though passengers are being failed by GTR and Southern, going back to the status quo is no longer acceptable? When the service is running at full capacity, my constituents on the Uckfield line have to suffer the so-called the misery line, so even the status quo is not good enough.

Henry Smith: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. She has been a firm campaigner on behalf of her constituents and others—[Interruption.] A doughty campaigner, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) says from a sedentary position. My hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Nusrat Ghani) has been a doughty campaigner on behalf of people across East Sussex and West Sussex too.

I was pleased to see the new rail Minister provide a written statement on GTR when Parliament reconvened earlier this month, and I hope that he will continue to update colleagues in writing and, of course, in person.

As part of the £20 million improvement fund, additional staff will be hired at all stations, including East Croydon and Gatwick Airport, which is in my constituency. I understand that £1 million will be spent on testing platform and dispatch staff infrastructure at these stations. Will the Minister please provide an update on a timetable for staff hire and equipment testing at Gatwick Airport station? I hope that these improvements will reduce the need for my constituents, with continuing exasperation, to use the Delay Repay system.

On compensation for passengers, as I mentioned in response to my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, let me be clear: compensation is not a solution in itself, but improving the compensation procedure and making the process simpler for passengers are important in the short term.

I very much welcome the letter, which has been placed in the Library of the House, from the rail Minister to the Chair of the Transport Committee, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman), dated 6 September 2016. The Minister wrote that

“rail customers should not be denied any consumer rights or protections even for a temporary period while the rail industry works to put in place more consistent compensation arrangements between train operators.”

The previous rail Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry), stated in June that the Government

“are committed to improving compensation arrangements for passengers. . . We expect to make an announcement on this in the next few months.”

This followed a previous announcement in the 2015 autumn spending review that passengers would soon have access to compensation when trains are more than 15 minutes late. My constituents have described to me their frustration when they experience a delayed train and often miss out on compensation because their service is delayed, for example, by marginally less than the current 30-minute threshold. When can we expect further details from the Minister about the enhanced compensation measures?

Last week saw the all too familiar sight of Southern railway staff handing out leaflets to passengers, advising of the details of the latest RMT union strikes. Now, ​I have been clear that I have no hesitation in criticising GTR when necessary, and, as a regular commuter on the network, I doubt there will be a single Member here tonight who disagrees with me when I say that it is extremely necessary on far too many occasions to hold the company to account. However, we cannot allow the RMT union to escape blame either. Yes, we criticise GTR when its service does not run on time, but we must also question why the RMT union, having seen the issues affecting our constituents in getting to work, see this as an opportunity for industrial action and the creation of further misery and difficulty.

Chris Philp (Croydon South) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that the RMT strike is totally without justification? There are no pay cuts and no job losses, and there will still be two staff on all the trains. Will he also join me in condemning not just the official strike action, but the equally invidious unofficial strike action held via the very high levels of sickness we see daily?

Henry Smith: My hon. Friend has been an excellent representative since being elected to the House last year, particularly on the issue of Southern rail and Thameslink delays. I do think that we are seeing industrial action that is taking advantage of a very difficult situation, with infrastructure failures and a large franchise trying to cope, and that is unacceptable. On the issue of driver only-operated trains, we are not seeing any reduction in guard staff numbers. I appreciate that there are safety issues that need to be properly addressed, but I do not think that this sort of confrontation between unions and management is something that passengers, when they are stuck delayed on platforms, appreciate at all.

Let me turn to the new timetable consultation. Last week, GTR was due to open the public consultation for its timetable from 2018. While I would urge my constituents to take part in that process, I ask my hon. Friend the Minister what discussions he has had with the company concerning its service going forward?

Rail fares are a further issue of consternation for commuters in my constituency. I know that I am not alone in calling for fares to be frozen and not put up in line with inflation, as a result of the issues that my constituents, and others across the south of England, have been experiencing for about a year now. The Government admit, obviously, that there is a problem, not least because they will be spending £20 million on the rapid upgrades. While the Government’s cap on fares will save season ticket holders an average of £425 through this Parliament, does the Minister not agree that it is right for the passengers who have endured such prolonged disruption to receive an exemption from this fare rise?

While we are seeing some benefits, such as the new rolling stock—the Thameslink class 700 trains, for example—things are not happening quickly enough. Passengers in Crawley and across London and the southern counties continue to be affected. They include a constituent of mine, for example, who works as a nurse. All she wishes to do is to get to work to serve her patients. However, because she travels by rail, that is becoming more and more difficult for her. On behalf of all passengers, commuters and staff who want a decent rail network, I urge the Government to ensure that GTR is held to account and that these improvements are realised.​

The time is now 10.23 pm. I anticipate that the debate will conclude at about a quarter to 11. Normally, I should be able to rely on getting the tube to London Victoria station and a train back to Three Bridges. The reality today is that I have driven in to Westminster because I cannot be confident of getting home tonight unless I do that. The impact that these things are having on our broader transport congestion and infrastructure is unacceptable. What might seem quite a parochial issue is, I think, affecting the national economy and having a significant effect on people’s personal lives and on the strength, growth and environment of London and the south-east.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Paul Maynard): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) on securing this debate—my first as rail Minister, as he rightly pointed out. Usually we would take satisfaction from that fact, but given the subject matter that we are discussing and what is occurring on the Southern network, it is very hard to take any satisfaction at all. I know that it is a subject particularly close to his heart. He talked about the meeting that he chaired in August with GTR officials. Not only has he called me for my first Adjournment debate, but he also accompanied me on my first ministerial visit, as he mentioned, when we visited the Three Bridges depot and saw the control room where Network Rail and GTR are seeking to work together.

Let me say first and foremost that I completely understand my hon. Friend’s personal frustration, which he eloquently set out and I recently read about in his powerful column in Rail magazine. I also understand his constituents’ frustration, and indeed that of all the constituents of hon. Members who are here, about the service that they are receiving. I expect that GTR should be able to run a reliable and predictable service for passengers. I can only imagine what it must be like to be dependent on such an unpredictable service as a commuter. I have read the emails and the letters, and I understand the genuine distress that so many feel at the inadequate service they are currently receiving.

I would therefore like to assure my hon. Friend, and all the other hon. Members here tonight, that the Secretary of State and I are determined to resolve these issues as quickly as possible, and that this has been a priority for us both since our appointment. That is why, as my hon. Friend observed, on 1 September the Secretary of State announced a £20 million fund that will help to replace equipment likely to fail and renew the most problematic stretches of track. It will also double the number of rapid response teams to solve problems and increase staff on the busiest platforms to get passengers away on time. As he mentioned, one of those stations is Gatwick in his constituency. In the coming days, I will be meeting John Halsall, the new route director, to discuss some of the details of what will be occurring at Gatwick. It is important to say that this £20 million is not money that is going to Southern but money that is going to Network Rail to fund its priorities in improving the infrastructure to give Southern the best chance it has to run the very reliable and predictable service that I spoke of earlier.

Members will be aware that the Secretary of State has announced the appointment of the vastly experienced Chris Gibb to head a new project board. This board will ​work with GTR, the DFT and Network Rail to explore how to achieve a rapid improvement to services. It will oversee the £20 million fund, and also closer working between the three organisations. We need a joined-up approach to running the network and making things better. This Government are committed to putting passengers first. That is why I was personally determined that a passenger representative be included on the board, which is relatively small, to ensure that commuters’ views are heard and that improvements properly reflect what passengers themselves want. This is a time-limited board. It will present a plan in the autumn and actions will be implemented soon after. The Secretary of State and I will seek to personally update ourselves on its progress and hold it to account.

As hon. Members will be aware, the ongoing works at London Bridge station have been a main contributor to the disruption faced by passengers. However, those works are part of a £6.5 billion pound Government-sponsored Thameslink programme that will improve passenger experience now and in the future, and build a railway that is fit for the future. In addressing the historical lack of investment in this part of the network, we are investing £1.1 billion in the London Bridge programme alone. Delivering works of this huge scale while operating one of the busiest routes into London was always going to take time and regrettably cause some disruption.

With a recovering economy, particularly around London, more and more people want to travel to and from the capital. In the past five years alone, the number of passengers on Thameslink has grown by 40%, and on Southern the figure is 32%. The Thameslink programme will have a significant transformational effect in the levels of capacity on this core inner-London route, delivering new trains that will operate every two to three minutes through central London at peak times. A total of £1.62 billion is being invested in new trains to meet this requirement, and they will be introduced between now and summer 2018. The first of those ran on 20 June, and there are now six in service. That will mean new and improved connections, providing better travel options to more destinations than ever before. My hon. Friend mentioned the future timetable from 2018. Although my personal focus at the moment is on restoring normality to the timetable, I am always keen to hear from colleagues their priorities for future service levels on the network.

I will now turn to the issue of industrial action. As hon. Members will be aware, trade unions and Southern have been in dispute since mid-April. The dispute has centred on driver-operated doors and it is adding significantly to the disruption that passengers are facing. However, moving to a way of working in which the driver controls the train doors and the second person on the train is able to better support passengers of varying needs is, in my view, more passenger-friendly, and it will allow a higher performing, more resilient rail service. The unjust industrial action arising from this dispute is holding GTR back from delivering a modern, safe and passenger-focused railway. Moreover, it is not in the interests of staff, either.

The action has led GTR to implement a revised timetable, cutting the number of services on weekdays to try to ensure a more reliable and predictable service ​for passengers, and ensuring that Network Rail can get access to the track to improve the infrastructure’s reliability.

Caroline Lucas: Will the Minister recognise, though, that many of the guards, certainly those I have spoken to, are taking action, very reluctantly, because they genuinely believe that there are safety concerns with driver-only operation? The fact that the Rail Safety and Standards Board says otherwise should not give us any comfort, given that plenty of private rail company operators sit on it. Does he not accept that if the Government withdrew the DOO element of the franchise, we would be able to resolve the issue much more quickly?

Paul Maynard: I am afraid that I have heard that tale from the hon. Lady time and again during the eight weeks I have been doing this job. Driver-controlled operation is safe. The Rail Safety and Standards Board says so, and to suggest that because it is funded by rail companies it is in some way not to be trusted overlooks the fact that we have one of the safest railways in Europe. She needs to decide how she is going to put passengers first, and I am waiting to hear that from her.

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): Further to that point, do not 60% of trains operated by GTR, and, indeed, a highly significant proportion of the whole network, already have driver-only operated doors? It cannot therefore be the case that they are all unsafe.

Paul Maynard: Such trains have been in operation for more than 30 years—even on the British Rail network—and they are perfectly safe, in my view.

On 5 September, I was pleased to inform the House that Southern had reinstated 119 weekday services. That means that more than nine out of 10 trains on the network are now running to the original weekday timetable. At the moment, that is benefiting passengers mainly on inner-London services, with almost all London Bridge peak trains running again and the restoration of the service to Southern’s west London line.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley has pointed out, Sussex passengers have yet to benefit. I will meet GTR later this week to further discuss its plans. I have made it clear that I expect the tempo of the introduction to be maintained and that the matter should be resolved in weeks, not months. I acknowledge that some routes are still suffering badly, and my priority is making sure that those services are restored in a timely, sensible and lasting manner.

It is unacceptable that the rail unions are causing more disruption for passengers by holding these strikes and unofficial industrial action. The real solution is for the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers to bring the dispute to a close and start to put passengers first.

It is understandable that, with services as they are, my hon. Friend has raised the issue of fares, the cost of which has an immense impact on people’s budgets. That is why, as he pointed out, we have capped fares that we regulate at inflation for four years running and will continue to do so for the life of this Parliament. That means that fares can only rise by 1.9% in 2017, providing an annual saving of £425 in the five years until 2020.​

I also acknowledge that compensation is an important part of this picture, given the current cost of rail travel and the amount of disruption caused. In its current form, Delay Repay compensation continues to apply against the permanent standard timetable. It is important that all travellers are aware of that when assessing their eligibility to claim. The Secretary of State and I are continuing to consider more generous compensation for passengers on this route, and we hope to make a timely announcement. I want to ensure that we focus on restoring normality to the timetable, and that has to be the most important task at hand.

Jeremy Quin (Horsham) (Con): It is a great pleasure to welcome my hon. Friend to the Dispatch Box. On the point about compensation, I recognise what he is saying, but the need for compensation has been recognised from the Dispatch Box by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr Cameron). As my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) said in his opening speech, it has also been mentioned in Westminster Hall. The sooner we can get that out to our constituents, the better. I hope that “timely” means a rapid announcement, if I may press the Minister on that.

Paul Maynard: My hon. Friend may, of course, press me on that. I know that he asked that question of the former Prime Minister and got quite a categorical answer. I assure him that we are working on this important issue on a regular basis, and it is a matter of frequent conversation. It has not been put on the back burner, and I hope he will be getting some helpful news relatively soon.

Chris Philp: Given that our constituents have paid very large sums of money for season tickets this year and have manifestly not received the service they have ​paid for, would the Minister and his colleague the Secretary of State consider paying each and every season ticket holder a rebate of, for example, 10% of their season ticket payment—[Interruption.] Or 20%; we seem to be conducting an auction. Would the Secretary of State consider paying them such a rebate in recognition of the fact that they have not received the service they have paid for?

Paul Maynard: I am grateful for that contribution. There are numerous ways in which we are considering the potential for compensation. I will take that suggestion on board, and I hope to make further announcements in due course.

This stretch of the network is one of the most intensively used in the country, and it has seen a dramatic increase in the number of journeys over the past few years. We therefore had to update and modernise the service, not least to accommodate greater passenger numbers and to ensure their journeys are comfortable. That has required significant engineering work in the central London area. That work will ultimately, by the end of 2018, increase the capacity and frequency of trains stopping at peak times, to the benefit of all hon. Members gathered here today and to their constituents.

That said, I recognise that the current performance is not good enough. I expect GTR and Network Rail to work together to make sure that it improves significantly, so that passengers, on whose behalf the railway operates, can have the reliable, predictable railway for which they have paid.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.