The Performance of Govia Thameslink rail service

Nick's Speech in the Westminster Hall Debate

 Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con)

We have been here before. There have been at least two debates in this Chamber, one secured by me and one by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp), in which we heavily criticised Southern and also Network Rail for failing to deliver a satisfactory performance for their customers. We welcomed the introduction of a performance improvement plan, then a year later got very annoyed that the self-set targets, already low in that performance improvement plan, had not been adhered to; and before Christmas I said that unless there was a significant and rapid improvement in the performance of the company, removal of the franchise should certainly be considered.

Let us be clear. The current performance, which is measurably worse than it was a year ago and has deteriorated rapidly, is due to new and different reasons, and we have to understand what they are. Before the strikes that were called by the rail unions, 26 train cancellations a day were due to train crew unavailability. Clearly, it is a major failure on the part of GTR Southern not to have recruited sufficient staff to be able to run the service. Nobody should resile from criticising the company for that.

After the strikes began, in the period 29 March to 25 June, 148 trains were cancelled a day—a remarkable increase. The figures produced by GTR tell us, assuming that they are reliable, that driver sickness since the start of the strikes has increased by about a third and the illingness to work overtime has reduced by about a third. It is that remarkable loss of labour that is causing the real disruption that so annoys our constituents at the moment.

The dispute turns on whether it is safe to introduce trains with driver-operated doors. The question for hon. Members of all parties, including all of us who rail about the performance of the franchise holder, is whether it is safe to introduce such trains. Do we think the unions have a case in mounting their industrial action or not? It is hard to argue that there is a safety issue when 60% of the trains currently operated by GTR already have driver-only operation of doors, 40% of them Southern trains. Are we all saying that those trains are unsafe? Are the unions saying that those trains are unsafe? That is the kernel of the issue at the moment, so let us confront it.

We have to decide whether the unions have a point. If we do not think they have a point—I do not think they do, because there will be no job losses, no reductions in pay, and there will still be staff on almost all the trains, including the drivers that currently have guards who operate the doors—why are we blaming Southern entirely for this dispute?

I have absolutely no compunction about criticising Southern. No hon. Member has criticised Southern more firmly than I have over the past year. I have been very clear about the failings of the company and its management. No hon. Member has criticised Southern more firmly—the record shows that—but I am sure that the current disruption is being caused by the industrial action. What I question is why we collectively—hon. Members of all parties—have been so reticent to attribute proper blame to the unions for what is happening. In my judgment, the unions are being very clever. They know that this dispute is effectively a work to rule.


Lilian Greenwood

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way and congratulate all those who have taken part in the debate. Does the right hon. Gentleman think it helped or hindered when Peter Wilkinson, the managing director of passenger services, said earlier this year:

“We have got to break them...They can’t afford to spend too long on strike and I will push them into that place...They will have to decide if they want to give a good service or get the hell out of my industry”?

I agree about the need for good industrial relations, but does the right hon. Gentleman think that that was constructive?


Nick Herbert

I am not defending Southern’s industrial relations. The question for the hon. Lady is whether she thinks the dispute is justified. If she would like to tell me that, I will sit down and give way to her now. Is the dispute justified or not?


Lilian Greenwood

Clearly, there has been a breakdown in communication between staff and management.


Nick Herbert

Answer the question.


Lilian Greenwood

The only way in which a dispute will be resolved is by people sitting round the table to discuss concerns about safety, and there are concerns across the network, across the country, about safety issues on platforms and about the control of doors.


Nick Herbert

We did not get an answer to the question, and therein lies the problem: the current disruption that is causing massive inconvenience to our constituents is principally—not entirely—caused by the industrial action, which is official on strike days but unofficial when it clearly amounts to a work to rule. The problem is being caused by the unions, but hon. Members are not willing to criticise the unions for that. Undoubtedly, all sections of the rail industry have a case to answer for the poor performance in the franchise. Some 60% of the delays up until we had the strike were caused by the failures of infrastructure of Network Rail, not Southern, although that is partly being caused by the upgrade at London Bridge.

There is a real question about whether the franchise should have been awarded and about the scale of it. The franchise is too big. All parties have a case to answer; I am sure there is a case to answer on the part of GTR and Southern’s management, too. For a start, they kicked off with insufficient drivers and staff. That is poor planning, but I go back to the central point that I was seeking to make: I have found it surprising in this debate that so little attention has focused on what the unions are doing.

Before the hon. Lady intervened, I was making the point that the unions have been very clever, because all the blame has been attributed to Southern, and what happens? We now have a pantomime villain to whom it is very easy for us all to say, “Boo! Take the franchise away.” I joined in on this pantomime cry: “Take the franchise away and all the problems will be over.” That is the easy thing for us all to say, but the question will remain: is it safe to have these new trains with driver-only operation of doors? The new franchisee will have to answer that question, and hon. Members are doing themselves no service at all by failing to address the key reason why the dispute arose in the first place.


The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Claire Perry)

I appreciate the opportunity to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I thank right hon. and on. Members on both sides for their contributions to this important debate. Before I look forwards, I want to take a couple of minutes to look back.

One of my first jobs on becoming rail Minister in 2014 was to go up the Shard and welcome this new franchise, and to celebrate the fact that the franchise had been awarded to an operator who, by all accounts, was well qualified to take it on. It had operated trains during the Olympics, when everything ran swimmingly, and it was appraised of the extent of the Thameslink disruption. It had an investment plan and a plan to redress the shortage of drivers—an issue that had bedevilled the previous franchise. Things seemed to be set fair.

In the summer of that year we saw the major blockades at London Bridge which caused massive disruption for people—not during the blockade but at points afterwards. Afterwards, we ran into weeks and weeks of problems. I got involved and we had a weekly quadrant meeting. My friend the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) said that we all now know far more about trains and franchising than we ever thought we would have to know.

In fairness, things were starting to work. Despite the lack of joined-up thinking about the impact of the London Bridge works on existing commuters, the major problems with Network Rail’s infrastructure reliability, which were not being addressed properly, and the series of changes, including Sir Peter Hendy coming in from TfL and taking direct control of all the infrastructure work in that area, everyone was pulling together, with the massive involvement of my officials, and in April the public performance measure got back to 83.6%.


Chris Philp

That is rubbish.


Mr Umunna

It is still terrible.


Claire Perry

It was not nearly good enough, but that was 10 percentage points up over the last six months. There was every view that performance was returning to the place where we needed it to be.

Since then—I will come to the issue of the industrial action—all bets are off. When people simply do not know how many staff are rostering in a particular depot, particularly the Brighton depot, where so many trains start and finish, it is impossible to run a reliable service. I have been to London Bridge and Victoria stations many times and travelled on the trains and I have been ashamed to be the rail Minister. I suggest that successive rail Ministers over many years in many Governments should share that sense of shame.

There seem to have been four fundamental failures in the industry that mean that when things go wrong, it is really hard to recover. It is the customers—the passengers who rely on the train services—who suffer. First, I submit to the House that there has been a disdain for people—for passengers—at the heart of the railway for decades. I have shared this anecdote with the House previously: a former very senior member of Network Rail said to me that the problem with the timetable is that the customers mess it up. Think about what that implies about what that person’s view of their job was: to run a system, not to move people.

Crowding is not really costed in any of the economic measures that successive Governments have used. There has just been an assumption that people will continue to cram on. It is more valuable to put a train on a long-distance ervice, where there is a discretionary choice of travel, than to relieve crowding on an overground service around London. That seems to me to be perverse.

Investment has been entirely focused on engineering improvements and almost never on reduction in delay. Why do we still have this “leaves on the line” problem every year? By the way, no one has ever calculated the economic consequences of leaves on the line. Surely it is not beyond the wit of our finest metallurgists to solve that problem, yet we just accept it. We plough on and look to shave five minutes off long-distance journeys.

Thameslink will deliver some significant benefits for people travelling through London. There are brand new trains and wonderful new stations such as Blackfriars, which nobody ever talks about. It is a wonderful station delivered without a trace. Nevertheless, the human cost of the Thameslink work on the travelling public was almost forgotten. I was not the Minister at the time and I do not even know under which Government it was planned, but a man came up to me at London Bridge station in tears and said, “You’re doing this so people can get from Cambridge to Brighton without disruption. That’s great, but I just want to get home to see my kids.” There is something flawed with the industry, because it does not value those people’s experiences.

The second failure is that, as Members know, the industry has a highly complicated structure. We have Network Rail, which is in a much better place now, post the Hendy review and Shaw changes. It has made some amazing hires. We have a franchising system that in some cases delivers huge benefits but in other cases does not. The problem with franchising is that if it is a very short-term franchise, nobody has an incentive to invest in industrial or passenger relations. Why would the staff care when the name on the nameplate changes every seven years?


Andy McDonald

They do care.


Claire Perry

They do care, but why would they feel an allegiance to a company the name of which changes every few years? The staff on the frontline care in extreme amounts, and we are all very grateful for that.


Andy McDonald

Will the Minister give way?


Claire Perry

No, I am going to continue.

Thirdly, we have an investment structure that is broken. The Government step in over and over again to fill the gaps and to buy rolling stock. By the way, the profits in the rail industry mostly accrue to the rolling stock leasing companies—the ROSCOs. If Members look at the shareholder structures to see where the profits are, they will see that they are with the rolling stock companies, not the franchise operators. GTR’s margin this year is going to be around 1.5% on this franchise. There is something structurally wrong with the financial structure of the industry.

The fourth and final problem is that the contractual levers are really poor. I have been asked repeatedly, “Why don’t you just take the franchise back?” The reason is that I cannot. GTR is not in breach of its franchise contract right now.


Mr Umunna

indicated dissent.


Claire Perry

The hon. Gentleman knows—he has been involved in contracting—that we have a contractual structure and there are a series of inputs and outputs. The company is not in breach of them. People ask what happened with Directly Operated Railways. The franchise was handed back to the Government by East Coast. In such circumstances we can take it back in-house and do something with it, but at the moment I do not have the levers to pull to take the franchise back.


Chris Philp

Will the Minister give way?


Claire Perry

No. If I may, I will continue, because I want to try to address some action points. I will try to finish quickly.

If I thought it would help by me falling on my sword, I would. I have thought about it repeatedly. I do not like failure. I do not fail at stuff in my life. This feels like a failure. Could I do something contractually to force the franchise to end early? Would the problems actually go away? Would the industrial action and staffing problems stop? No. Would the investment programme create anything more certain for passengers? No. In my view, it would do almost nothing. It feels like that scene in Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff”, when the test pilot is “augering in”—into the ground—shouting:

“I’ve tried A! I’ve tried B! I’ve tried C! I’ve tried D! Tell me what else I can try!”

I take issue with the view that nobody cares. Charles Horton and Dyan Crowther really care. They have done so much work. They have been out there, briefing and working tirelessly. The emergency timetable was not just some fantasy; it was an attempt to try to deliver a reliable service that would actually work, by compressing staff and trains into the areas of greatest need and making sure that the services that were withdrawn were ones for which there were alternative routes. The front-line staff really care. Day after day, they are there, holding the line, dealing with angry customers and trying to cheer up passengers. Right hon. and hon. Members really care. We have all been on this journey for many years now. My Department cares passionately. Nobody is enjoying this process.

On industrial relations, it is true that doors operated by drivers are safe—61% of GTR trains are already operated using the technology. It is incredible what can be done through industrial action. Is it politically motivated? I do not know. Yesterday, the 8.36 service from London Victoria to Sutton was cancelled because an unknown person had been smoking in the driver’s cab and the driver was not happy to drive the train. The driver’s cab had to be aired and cleaned before it could be utilised, so the service was cancelled, causing knock-on delays throughout the day. To me, that does not feel like everybody pulling together to deliver a battle plan for customers who want to get home, which is what I think they should be doing.

What are we going to do? The one-month emergency timetable was today—at least as of 12 noon—delivering a 90.3% PPM on Southern. Everything could go wrong later in the day, but it looks like it is starting to work. That timetable will be in place for one month, and we need to monitor it closely. I want to bring forward compensation plans. That will involve negotiation with other parts of the Government, given that we are talking bout revenue that is coming into the Government coffers, but I am very keen to deliver compensation. I have written to the next Prime Minister about this. She has a proposal to get customers and unions more closely involved in the management structure of companies, and GTR would be a perfect example of involving them. I do want to meet the unions and the management. I have been advised repeatedly to stay out of it—hell no! I want to sit people around the table and say, “What the hell is going on? Let’s try to sort this out.”

Over the medium term, I want to accelerate the plan for the devolution of rail services to London. It is absolutely right to do that and it will deliver capacity on inner-London and suburban routes. I do not care about the politics and I do not care that there is a Labour Mayor; I just want the trains to run better. I also want to look at a new structure. In the Shaw report, we gave ourselves permission to look at new ways of running the railway. Could we put rolling stock and infrastructure together in a way that delivers a better service for passengers?

Although GTR is a highly complicated franchise—it is the busiest, most complicated thing in the country—it could be the perfect way to try to get everyone to focus on delivering a service. Would it not be great to be proud of the services that were bringing people into the greatest city in the UK, rather than ashamed? That is what I want, and I know it is what we all want. I may not be the Minister to deliver it, but as sure as hell I will keep trying until I am kicked out.


To read the full debate, see here: