The performance of Govia Thameslink Railway and Network Rail
Nick's speech in the Westminster Hall Debate
Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) on securing this debate. I agree with every word he said. The performance of the franchise simply is not good enough. It is a matter of deep regret and enormous frustration that Members have had to come back to this Chamber again to raise concerns about its performance. The figures speak for themselves. In 2011, 78% of Southern passengers were satisfied with train punctuality and reliability. In spring 2015 the figure had fallen to just over half, 56%, and in the autumn it had risen to 65% - fewer than two thirds of passengers were satisfied. Last year, Southern was effectively voted by passengers the worst franchise in the country.
That is unacceptable when, one year ago, thanks to the Minister’s sterling efforts, the industry gathered together and agreed a performance improvement plan for the franchise that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham said, set a benchmark for performance that was already far lower than that in the rest of the industry. What do we see one year later? In the past three months, the franchise has consistently fallen below the standard set by its own benchmark, which was already low. That is simply not acceptable. Indeed, in the original performance improvement plan, the industry said:
“You will notice real improvements from now onwards in the punctuality and reliability of our trains.”
That promise has been broken. It will evince nothing more than a hollow laugh from passengers, who are absolutely fed up. Day after day we hear the franchise’s excuses on its trains, including a shortage of rolling stock. What happened to the rolling stock? How can a train be missed? Why are there inadequate amounts of rolling stock? Another excuse is that drivers are not available. That is not necessarily because, as has been pointed out to me, drivers are failing to turn up, but simply because an inadequate number of drivers are employed by the company. An airline would not run things like that, so why should we accept it from the rail industry?
Where is the accountability for this lamentable performance? Who is being held accountable, and how, for the complete failure to deliver by the franchise’s own standards and the promises that it made? The franchise said a year ago that it would deliver improvements, and those improvements have not been delivered. What penalty will be exacted against it? Have senior managers been held accountable in any way? Have they had their pay frozen or their salaries cut? I hope there have been no performance-related bonuses. There could not possibly have been because the performance has been so bad. Perhaps there should be performance-related penalties. Where is there accountability in the system that will drive better performance? The public are fairly asking those questions.
When the franchise was first awarded in May 2014 - I am sorry to have to remind the Minister of this - the Department for Transport’s press notice said:
“Demanding contractual obligations on the operator will deliver cleaner and more spacious trains and improve passenger satisfaction. Tough new benchmarks for performance, train and station cleanliness and customer service information have also been agreed.”
The impression that was created was that the service would get better; it has got worse. Where is the accountability? How will this service be held to account?
None of us has any complaint about how the Minister has approached the issue - far from it. She has arraigned the companies concerned in front of Members and required the companies to meet us to account for themselves. She drove the introduction of the performance improvement plan, and she has done her level best to insist on greater performance, but we cannot find ourselves arriving in this Chamber in one year’s time having experienced the same level of delays and lack of passenger satisfaction as we have now. The service simply must improve. If it will not improve rapidly, we have to consider more radical action to address the problem. The lack of performance is undermining faith in the entire policy of engaging the private sector to deliver public services. In that respect, it is very damaging to the Government and to the reputation of the whole industry. It is simply not good enough, it must improve and there must be accountability on the part of the franchisee to deliver better performance.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Claire Perry):
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. You are always a fount of rail-related humour. I join in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) on securing a very important debate, which we must not shy away from continuing. Members have been very kind about what my Department and I are doing, but we are simply reflecting the concerns of Members and the constituents they serve. It is imperative that we sort the issue out. As the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) said, with many more investment projects to happen, we have to learn lessons and ensure that this level of disruption does not happen again.
There was very little that I disagree with in what was said today. We know that performance on this part of the network in the franchise—it carries almost a quarter of all rail passengers every day—is simply not good enough, whether in punctuality, reliability, customer satisfaction or the way people feel they are being treated. A lot of points have been raised today, and I will try to address as many as possible in my closing remarks, but if I do not get to everyone’s, please be assured that I have instructed my officials to take notes and to write specifically in response. It is important, on Budget day no less, to have so many hon. and right hon. Members prepared to come to Westminster Hall to make passionate and compelling cases. We need to keep working collectively on this issue.
I will step through the three root causes of problems on the lines, which I think Members know, and then I will talk a little about what is changing and where more needs to be done. The first root cause—my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) made the point compellingly—is that there is a very big improvement project going on with Thameslink and what that entails and the London Bridge reconstruction. It is not just London Bridge, though; Blackfriars is a beautiful station and a wonderful addition to our landscape, and it opened almost without fanfare. We will be unpicking the north-south lines through London and under the Thames so that the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham will be able to take a direct train straight through to Peterborough or points in between and access other train journeys. Moreover, they will be able to do so on a brand new fleet of trains, which will start to roll out in the next few months.
I was delighted to welcome the first of the new fleet of Gatwick Express trains. They are purpose-built for people travelling to and from the airport. The first is in operation, and the others will be up and running by the summer. That is tangible evidence of improvement. It is a big package of untangling lines that have not been touched properly in many years, putting in new stations, driving new train paths and providing customers with a much better travelling environment. That is a prize worth having. When London Bridge is open, all the platforms are returned to full capacity and we have many more trains with the ability to take many more passengers, some of the immediate issues will undoubtedly be solved.
The Minister mentioned Gatwick Express. I saw the brand new trains, which are fitted with wi-fi. I gather that she is in negotiations with Govia Thameslink Railway about upgrading existing rolling stock with wi-fi so that at least our commuting constituents stuck on trains going nowhere can get on with some work while they are delayed. Will she ensure that that happens as a matter of urgency?
I am happy to confirm again that I have committed to roll out free wi-fi in all classes of train travel across England by 2018. Trains coming on to the franchises will be fitted with wi-fi as a matter of course, and trains that are already running will be retrofitted.
I hope constituents who are not stuck on trains for longer than their train times will also be able to do some productive work. Wi-fi is an important addition to the landscape.
We always knew it would be tough with London Bridge and Thameslink. Despite what some might say is long-term disruption on the line and fare changes, we have seen incredible amounts of growth on the railway. In fact, travel from Horsham, for example, is up 40% in the past 10 years, so more and more people are getting on trains right across the country. Frankly, successive Governments have neglected to invest in infrastructure. We have all ducked our collective responsibility to invest in trains to get people moving effectively and efficiently around the country. It is vital that we keep the investment programmes growing, because we are now seeing some of the problems associated with passenger growth on lines that have not been invested in.
Underlying all that is a problem that is a little more sinister: even when Thameslink is running—when all the trains are rolling, the system looks great and the stations are open—we still have persistent, daily failures of the infrastructure the trains are running over. Our constituents do not care whose fault it is, and nor should they—that is my job, or at least my Department’s—but around 60% of delays are the result of infrastructure failures such as points failing, signals failing or other things going wrong. That is intolerable. Not only is it intolerable on a daily basis, but the Thameslink programme, which will deliver 24 trains an hour through the centre of London, north to south, will not be able to operate unless those infrastructure problems are sorted out.
The focus for my Department has been working together with Network Rail and the operators, including Southeastern, but I am afraid there is no magic bullet. There is no one thing we can all do. It is about a relentless focus on the day-to-day details of running a railway; and ensuring that, in the morning, trains come out of the depot on time to the second, and that, if there is a problem, it is fixed in the minimum amount of time. People may ask, “Surely that’s just railway 101—why hasn’t it happened?” Of course, it has happened, but the problem is that, under both public and private ownership, the customers have not mattered enough.
Members might be surprised to hear that no measure of lost customer time has ever existed on our railways, other than briefly on the London underground. That is inexcusable. My hon. Friend the Member for Horsham made the valid point that it is the human cost of failure that is so hard, as well as the productivity loss of making millions of people late, day in, day out. We have a record programme of investment in transport infrastructure—it was added to in the Budget today, which I welcome—and it is being done to drive up the productivity of the country, but nobody has ever captured the productivity loss from not running the trains on time. Members will be pleased to hear that I am devoting considerable time to that. I want the volume of people being carried on that part of the railway to really count, so that when infrastructure programmes need to be sorted out, there is even more emphasis on sorting them out. We are absolutely committed to doing that collectively.
Many Members raised driver shortages, which is a historical problem for the franchise. It has been run on a shoestring, with the number of drivers about 6% or 7% below what was required. That sounds like a small difference, but, on a very busy railway, if one driver is not there to run one train, there is an infection of delay right across the network. On its current recruitment plans, which are the biggest in the country, GTR will reach the minimum level—the operational level—in August this year. We have asked it to go further than that by recruiting more so that there is resilience in the system, and it is on track to do that. That is vital.
Several Members made important points about ticketing offices and smart ticketing. A consultation on ticket office changes is going on. Nothing can happen without the Department’s say-so. The future of travel in this country is not orange bits of paper but digital ticketing information being delivered to us through whatever device we choose. In some cases, that might be a bar code printed out on a piece of paper, although as the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) said, many customers like to buy a ticket from a person, or at least have some interaction.
We have already invested more than £30 million in the south-east flexible ticketing programme, and there are tens of millions of pounds of further commitment to come. That money has been invested to ensure that the franchises, of which GTR is the flagship, can implement the technology, have the back office and gate their stations so that the Key card—the smart card system—can work. If the Key card system were working, there might be an argument for getting people out from behind ticket office counters and on to the front lines, but I will commit today to having a deep-dive conversation with my officials and the franchise so that we can get to grips with where it is on the roll-out of the Key card and how that relates to ticket office closing hours. If we are going to do smart ticketing, let us do it right.
Mr Chuka Umunna (Streatham) (Lab)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) on securing this debate. The Minister is right that the Budget debate is ongoing; I want to take this opportunity to say that we in Streatham welcome the green light being given to Crossrail 2, but we want it to come to Streatham.
On ticket offices, it is totally and utterly unacceptable that the three stations in my constituency affected by the franchise will be losing more than 13 staff. It is all well and good telling people to go to the machine, but the problem is that the machines are not giving people the best prices that they are entitled to.
To be clear to the hon. Gentleman, the proposal is to do what Transport for London has done very successfully: train us all to use a reliable alternative system and then take people out and put them on the gate lines to help us. That is 21st century travel and I support it, and I hope he does too. I am afraid he will have to join the queue for lobbying on Crossrail locations.
In the two minutes my hon. Friend the Minister has remaining, will she say how the franchise is going to be held to account for its failure to deliver the performance expected?
I was just about to address some of the specific questions. The franchise has been fined more than £2 million for cancellations and the short formations that it has put on the service. That money will be spent on passenger-facing benefits. I am very keen that the money that comes in—the hon. Member for Middlesbrough mentioned the £4.1 million of reparations—is spent to directly benefit customers on this line. Additional proposals on that will be forthcoming.
I was asked at what point we do something radically different. Do we take the franchise back? Do we change? The truth is that this is an exceptionally busy, very 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. It is inexcusable that the wrong communications are given. It is inexcusable that delays happen or trains are going in the wrong direction. That is customer relationship management 101. We expect the private sector to deliver on that.
In closing, I will always happily welcome debates on this matter, because they strengthen the resolve of us all in getting to grips with some of the underlying problems of running a franchise in the busiest part of the country. Our debates are helping to inform wider changes throughout the industry, such as the relentless focus on customers. With this Government’s record level of investment in transport, we will have to have these conversations in future, whether about Euston or Manchester’s stations.
You can read the full debate here.
You can watch the debate here. Nick speaks at: 15:01:00.
To read the Minister's letter to Nick, see here.