MP demands accountability for rail failures

Arundel & South Downs MP Nick Herbert has written to the Rail Minister to ask her to clarify what sanctions are available to ensure that Network Rail and Govia Thameslink Railways are held to account for their failure to deliver acceptable standards of performance.

Mr Herbert followed up a Commons debate called by Sussex MPs earlier this month in which he called for stronger accountability for the railway operators who had failed to meet their own modest performance targets on the Brighton and Arun Valley lines.

Speaking in the Westminster Hall debate on 16 March, Mr Herbert said that it was a “matter of deep regret and enormous frustration” that MPs had to come back to the Commons once again to raise concerns about the performance of Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) and Network Rail. 

The MP pointed out that in 2011, 78 per cent of Southern passengers were satisfied with train punctuality and reliability, but by Spring 2015 the figure had fallen to just over half, 56 per cent.  In the autumn it rose to 65 per cent, but that still meant that fewer than two thirds of passengers were satisfied.

Mr Herbert said that this was unacceptable when one year ago the industry had agreed a performance improvement plan, thanks to the efforts of the Rail Minister.  The plan had set a low benchmark of 80.2 per cent of planned services that were less than 5 minutes late at their final destination, yet after one year GTR had failed to hit even this low target for three months running.

The MP pointed out that the promise in the performance improvement plan that passengers would “... notice real improvements from now onwards in the punctuality and reliability of our trains" had been been broken, and that customers were fed up with hearing excuses about lack of rolling stock and inadequate driver numbers.

Mr Herbert argued that GTR and Network Rail should be held to account for their persistent failure to deliver a decent service, and suggested that performance related penalties should be applied.  He praised the Minister’s approach to the issue, but said that the current situation could not continue and that more radical action should be considered to address the problem.  He said that the lack of performance was undermining faith in the entire policy of engaging the private sector to deliver public services and was damaging both to the Government and to the reputation of the whole industry.

Mr Herbert's criticism was echoed by other West Sussex and Surrey MPs who voiced similar concerns about performance on the lines.

The Minister responded that her Department was currently focusing on working with Network Rail to tackle the persistent, daily failures of the infrastructure.  60 per cent of delays were the result of infrastructure failures such as points failing, signals failing or other things going wrong.  The Minister said that this was “intolerable” and that there had to be a “relentless focus” on the day-to-day details of running a railway. 

On the issue of driver shortages she said that this has been a persistent problem for the franchise, with the number of drivers about 6 per cent or 7 per cent below what was required.  On its current recruitment plans, which are the biggest in the country, GTR would reach the minimum - operational - in August this year.  The Department for Transport had asked it to go further and recruit more so that there would be resilience in the system, and the company was on track to do.

In the last minutes of the debate, Mr Herbert pressed the Minister to respond on how the franchise will be held to account.  The Minister replied that the franchise had been fined more than £2 million for cancellations and short formations and that additional proposals would be forthcoming. 

On the question of whether GTR should be stripped of the franchise, the Minister said that “this is an exceptionally busy, difficult franchise to run.  In my view, nobody out there could do a better job than the current management team, but we have to ensure that there is a relentless focus on the customer.”  

Mr Herbert has now followed up on the debate and the Minister's reply by writing to ask her what further measures will be taken to ensure that GTR and Network Rail are held to account for their failure to meet the targets in their own performance improvement plan.

The MP said: "Day after day, week after week my constituents have to endure a standard of service that is simply unacceptable.  They don't want to hear more excuses: they simply want the service to improve, and so do I.  That is why I have asked the Minister to clarify how Network Rail and GTR/Southern will be held to account for their failure to deliver as they themselves promised".

ENDS

Notes

   1.     To read the debate in full see http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201516/cmhansrd/cm160316/halltext/160316h0002.htm#16031635000262.

   2.     To read Nick’s news ‘Southern must improve rail service immediately or lose franchise’ see http://www.nickherbert.com/news.php/692/mp-southern-must-improve-rail-service-immediately-or-lose-franchise.

Michelle TaylorRail