Chris Gibb Report: Improvements to Southern Railway
Nick's speech in the Commons Debate
Nick Herbert (Arundel & South Downs) (Con)
Let me start with something that I am sure hon. Members on both sides of the House will agree on: the service Southern has provided for passengers over the last more than two years has been completely unacceptable. There is no disagreement about that. Our constituents are at the end of their tethers, and the service last year, in particular, was wholly unacceptable—to the point that it was causing economic loss and real suffering on the part of our constituents.
The question, therefore, is not whether the service has been poor, but why that is the case and who is responsible. There has been no shortage of criticism on the Government Benches of Southern and Network Rail for their part in the story. Two and a half years ago, at the beginning of 2015, I and other Conservative Members initiated debates in Westminster Hall, asked questions and held a succession of meetings with Ministers about Southern’s performance after it took over the new and expanded franchise.
There were clearly serious problems. There were not enough drivers, and the infrastructure was inadequate because of the London Bridge improvements. It is an irony that the £6 billion London Bridge improvements, which will result in a better service for passengers, have caused a temporary shortage of capacity for the new franchise, which has exacerbated the issues.
In response to the criticism we made on behalf of our constituents, the then Secretary of State and the then rail Minister convened a meeting of the industry, and a performance improvement plan was introduced, whereby the industry agreed that it was necessary, step by step, month by month, to improve performance in the new franchise, recognising that it was a matter for not just the operator but Network Rail, which provided the track, and which is, of course, already in public ownership—a point that those on the Labour Front Bench might do well to consider.
As a consequence of that performance improvement plan, performance steadily improved again towards the end of 2015, but it then began catastrophically to deteriorate at the beginning of 2016, and specifically from April onwards. There was no coincidence about that. The reason it deteriorated was the industrial action that began at that time. That was not just the official industrial action on the part of the RMT, but the unofficial action, which the union has denied. There were suddenly very high rates of sickness, and there was a general unwillingness on the part of the workforce to co-operate with the management. It was undoubtedly the case that the operator was already having to improve its performance and already facing difficulties—there is no disagreement about that—but its performance declined catastrophically as a result of that industrial action. That action was then joined by the drivers, whose work to rule was official, rather than unofficial. The consequence was that the service last year was simply appalling.
What was that all about? It was about the alleged lack of safety as a consequence of the introduction of a system that has been operating on a third of the railways for 30 years. The hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) implied some kind of culpability—some kind of casual response to safety—on the part of the Government, but the Labour Government were in office for 13 years when driver-only operation trains were running. These trains run on the London underground; there happens to be a Labour Mayor responsible for that now. Indeed, the Docklands light railway has no drivers at all.
Currently, according to the figures that the unions gave us in a meeting this morning, over 97% of the trains that Southern is operating still have a safety-trained second member of staff on board. There have been no pay cuts, there have been no job losses, 97% of the trains are still running with a second person on board, and fewer than 3% of those trains are not, and yet the on. Gentleman implied that there had been de-staffing. Far from de-staffing, there has been an offer of a 24% pay increase to ASLEF drivers. There is no doubt about the unions’ responsibility for what happened last year.
Sir Peter Bottomley (Worthing West) (Con)
We heard nothing from the Opposition Front Bench about the patients, teachers, pupils and clinical staff whose lives have been wrecked as they have been forced from rail to road, which is far more dangerous. We need to get the railways working properly so that they are all safe and all can rely on them.
I strongly agree with my hon. Friend.
For those who have faced such constraints on their pay over the past few years, it will stick in their throats to see an offer given to the train drivers such that their salaries for a four-day, 35-hour week will rise to over £60,000 a year. That is a perfectly generous offer. Frankly, this has nothing to do with safety at all. The Opposition have been unable to produce any evidence that the service that is now running is unsafe, partly because it runs extensively across the national network and has done for 30 years, and partly because, as I said, there is still a second member of staff on board anyway—it is just that they are not operating the doors.
Sir Nicholas Soames (Mid Sussex) (Con)
My right hon. Friend and I have been working on this for a very long time as next-door neighbours. If all that is correct, as it is, can he tell us, with all that we have examined and learned about it, what he thinks this strike is about?
My right hon. Friend’s question would be best addressed to the unions themselves. I think it is about control of the railways—that is what they seek. It is certainly nothing to do with safety or the interests of passengers.
It is telling that since the industrial action fell away and the driver-only operation trains were successfully introduced on the line, the service has started to improve again. That gives the lie to the suggestion that this is only about Southern. It is not only about Southern—it has principally, although not exclusively, been about the industrial action that the unions have unreasonably taken on this railway.
There is no doubt that there is an inadequacy of investment historically on lines that have been carrying more and more people over recent years. In the 12 years that I have been a Member of Parliament, the number of passengers on Southern’s main routes has doubled. I welcome the £6 billion London Bridge investment and the £300,000 million package that the Government introduced, quite rightly, in response to the Gibb report. However, looking forward, there will need to be substantial further investment in lines that are carrying more and more people on a daily basis, because the infrastructure is not equal to the task of carrying the numbers of people that will only increase with the development that is now anticipated in the south-east. Let us be clear where the blame principally lies for the disruption over the past year—it principally lies with the unions.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Paul Maynard)
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time in your new role. I also welcome the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) to her place as a new shadow Minister. Having had to face the Transport Committee on this very issue on day two of my job, I know the challenge of taking up this complex issue at short notice, and the hon. Lady has acquitted herself well in her performance at the Dispatch Box. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members across the Chamber for participating in this helpful debate today, particularly those whose constituencies are on the line of route—whatever party they represent—who have worked so hard to support their constituents and deal with the impact of the disruption over the past months.
I believe that we have to continue to apologise to all those passengers who have been affected by the disputes and the disruption. We have heard many Members speak eloquently today about lives that have been disrupted, jobs that have not been a success and people who have been unable to get the treatment they need. We have heard so many examples, and my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield) spoke most eloquently about the impact on her constituency.
It is worth reflecting on why we asked for this report in the first place. The hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) seemed to suggest that I should have sufficient nowledge of these matters to know precisely what was wrong immediately. I think we can all agree that Mr Gibb was a powerful and persuasive performer when he met the all-party parliamentary group on Southern rail, and I brought him in precisely because, in my early days in this role, I wanted to understand what the real issues on the network were. We were having an epidemic of finger-pointing, and I wanted someone with a lifetime’s experience on the railway, in whom everyone on all sides had confidence, to come in and analyse the situation. I think that that is what Mr Gibb has done, and I was surprised to hear some Opposition Members express surprise that he had sought to meet representatives of GTR. I do not think he could have written a proper report without doing so.
It is worth restating the central finding of the report, which is that, were it not for the actions of the unions, passengers would have experienced a much better service. Ultimately then, the quickest and surest path to improvements on Southern is for the unions to refrain from their intransigence. Members on both sides have said that many factors lie behind the poor performance on Southern, and yes, there are lessons for the Department, but one thing is abundantly clear: when the service is not subject to industrial action, performance improves because of the actions that Mr Gibb has recommended.
Peter Kyle (Hove) (Lab)
The Minister is quite right to say that the service has improved over the past six months when industrial action has not been running. However, in the previous two years, service levels were falling without any industrial action taking place. The central finding of the Gibb report is that we need another £1 billion in the next period after this funding agreement. Will the Government provide it?
I will come to that in a moment. The hon. Gentleman has spoken sensibly on this issue, as did the hon. Member for Luton South (Mr Shuker). They both made thoughtful contributions to the debate. I will do my best to answer all the points that have been raised, but I doubt that I will succeed in the eight minutes remaining. I will do my best to write to anyone I miss.
Tim Loughton (East Worthing & Shoreham) (Con)
I am grateful to the Minister for taking my intervention. I did not speak earlier because I missed most of the debate. I would just ask him to mention one thing that was not covered. We made a manifesto commitment to customers to establish a railway ombudsman to ensure that the operators are properly penalised when they provide a rubbish service, so that customers do not have to jump through all sorts of hoops to get the compensation to which they are entitled.
I am glad that my hon. Friend mentioned that. It was indeed a manifesto commitment, and it is my personal crusade. I am determined to ensure that we bring it in, partly because of what I have seen for myself in dealing with the issues on Southern. I have had meetings today and—as they always say at the Dispatch Box—I will have further meetings in due course. I believe that this proposal is on track, and we hope to deliver it as soon as possible. I am sure that it will be welcomed across the House.
We have talked about some of the wider pressures on the network. The £300 million investment that we announced in January was a specific response to many of Mr Gibb’s recommendations, but I recognise that more will be needed. The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), who spoke for the Scottish National party, asked about the speed with which it would be spent. We made it clear from day one that it would be spent up to the end of control period 5—that is, until December 2018. That money is being spent at the moment, in addition to the £20 million he referred to. It is, for example, being spent on replacing old tracks, points and signalling. That is not just a matter of replacing bits of old kit; it will result in 15% fewer delay minutes and a more reliable and resilient railway.
There are other examples. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp) showed interest in high output ballast cleaning, and I can happily share with him that that is about replacing the ballast on the track. One might think that it is just a matter of cosmetics—not at all. Not only does it provide a smoother journey, but it reduces the number of temporary speed restrictions that increase perturbation on the network and make it harder to adhere to the timetable. Some £17 million has been spent on vegetation clearance, which may also appear to be a matter of cosmetics, but two of the five most recent incidents in the last control period that caused significant delays were due to trespassing. There is a clear link between vegetation management and the likelihood of trespassing on the railways, and that causes delays on the railways.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani) mentioned the Uckfield electrification. We are well aware of that project, and we are looking at it closely to ensure that we have the best possible business case. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes referred to BML2, and I know that the Secretary of State has met with the group and is urging it to carry on its work. Others have mentioned issues at stations. A particular finding about Victoria of Mr Gibb’s is that we need single station leadership, much like that being developed at London Bridge. A problem at stations is when train operating companies and Network Rail are all trying to make different decisions at the same time. We need single station leadership at our major termini.
We also recognise—I recognised it on day 2 at the Transport Committee—that the number of drivers at the start of the franchise was inadequate. We needed to understand why that was. Some of it was down to unexpected departures—fine—but I wanted to be clear about what procedures the Department had in place to ensure that any franchise handover involved adequate driver numbers. I am delighted that we now have over 322 drivers in training across the GTR network, but it takes 18 months to train a driver adequately with the route knowledge they need to operate safely on the network. I look forward to those drivers being part of the GTR network, reducing the reliance upon overtime and reducing the impact of any ASLEF overtime ban.
As we have heard, performance has been significantly better when we have not been facing industrial action. Back in December, it was as low as 62% on the PPM measure, but it is now at 82.5%. That is positive, but it came about only because so many of Mr Gibb’s recommendations have already been put in place. Many people referred to the benefits of smart ticketing. constantly urge GTR to do more with its key and keyGo smart cards, and I look forward to that benefiting constituents, particularly those in Lewes, soon.
The hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) mentioned the Thameslink programme, and my understanding is that many journeys on the East Midlands Trains franchise will be significantly shorter due to the new Thameslink timetable. That is why Mr Gibb is continuing in his role for the Department and is looking at the Thameslink readiness board, ensuring that all the different actors work together in that complex interaction, which will deliver a significant enhancement to the railway. I look forward to sharing more information with the hon. Lady. Mr Gibb’s willingness to chair the Thameslink readiness board is a sign that an approach to rail where we use expert knowledge and bring it to the table ensures that both Network Rail—many Opposition Members seem to forget that it is publicly owned—and train operating companies point in the same direction and have aligned incentives. She also briefly talked about level crossings, which I take seriously. We must ensure that the Law Commission proposal does what it seeks to achieve, but we also want to address safety around level crossings more widely—not just how we close them more quickly.
We will continue to do all that we can to try to bring an end to the dispute. We have no magic wand, but some evidence that a resolution can be reached is that ASLEF and GTR met for 32 days and managed to reach agreement on two occasions. That proves that things can be done without a Minister having to sit in the room. They are actually grown-ups, and they can reach agreement.
In conclusion, a lot has gone on already, but there will be a lot more to do. There is far more to do to ensure that all passengers get the timely, punctual and reliable service that they deserve on this railway. My Department will work hard to ensure that that happens. I thank everyone for their participation today.