Anne Main leads Parliamentary debate on Thameslink passenger services

19th July 2017

Anne Main leads Parliamentary debate on Thameslink passenger services highlighting the unreliable service and calling for an easier refund system, better communication and safer solutions to overcrowding problems.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Thameslink passenger services.

A recent customer satisfaction survey on commuter trains by Which? ranked Thameslink third from bottom. Thameslink registered an approval rating of just 32%; it was ranked above only the beleaguered Southern and Southeastern. I want to make the Minister aware of that passenger dissatisfaction today and suggest some improvements.

My constituents report cancellations and delays almost every day on the network. Over the last twelve months, trains have been plagued with technical problems. One constituent told me that last year alone he counted 15 broken-down trains on his journeys, including two on the same day, 14 August. Cancellations are often made at short notice. They cause later trains to be extremely busy, which makes it difficult for passengers to get on or off, giving rise to what have been called cattle-truck conditions and meaning that trains often cannot stop at their planned stations. Constituents tell me that on a bad day, which is not unusual, it takes them about two hours to get from London to St Albans, despite the 19 to 22 minutes timetabled for peak-time journeys. I have been told of constituents who have given up their jobs because they cannot afford the extra childcare—some nurseries charge an extra £50 per hour’s delay—or are unable to see their children in the evening. Many are consistently late for work despite leaving home earlier and earlier.

The Train Suffragettes are 500 mostly female parents in my constituency who were so fed up with the poor service they receive that they set up a group to show their collective unhappiness. They have shared with me their terrible experiences trying to balance work in London with family life in St Albans. They have missed school plays and parents’ meetings and rarely get to put their children to bed. Persistent delays have driven many of them to quit their jobs, and some have even moved away from the Thameslink line altogether. One mum told me:

“After calling in favours too many times from too many people and being late for nursery pick-ups three times in one week alone (once where I was actually stuck on the train for an hour with no phone signal and so unable to call anyone at the nursery), I quit my job in the city in October. Financially a difficult decision but I’d had a skinful of the stress of the commute, wondering if my train home would be on time or if I would have to sprint from the office to get the earlier train, which was often cancelled too.”

A lot of technical problems have been reported with the new Siemens 700 trains, mainly with electrics, software and heating. The doors often fail to open, especially at St Pancras, because they are now controlled by the driver; one day a train sat at the station for about 20 minutes because the driver could not open the doors. I know that Thameslink is aware of those problems. There has been some welcome recent progress, including an increase in Govia Thameslink’s public performance measurement from 60% to 83%, but that is still well below the national average of 88.95%.

Over the last year, Network Rail was responsible for 54% of delays, Thameslink for 42%, and other causes for 4%. We appreciate that ongoing Network Rail works have an impact on the line, but that is no excuse for rail services not to provide a reliable timetabled service or to try to deliver improvements to it. My constituents not only suffer a poor service but get far less generous compensation than Southern Rail passengers when incidents occur. That cannot be acceptable. Network Rail should have better lines of communication with Govia and passengers. People need to know as quickly as possible why they have been delayed and what they can do to avoid disruption.

In the 2016-17 financial year, one in 11 trains run by GTR was cancelled or more than 30 minutes late—the worst performance of all the rail operators in the country. In period 3 of 2016-17, GTR had a cancellation and significant lateness percentage of 15.7%, compared with a 5.7% national average. In period 3 of 2017-18, GTR had a considerably reduced failure rate of 6.6%, but that is still nearly double the national average of 3.7%.

In my first debate on this matter in 2012, I said that First Capital Connect, which then held the franchise—it has now been replaced by Govia—was ranked

“lowest in the country, including value for money, punctuality, sufficient room on trains, satisfaction with the stations and how the train operating companies…dealt with the delays.”—[Official Report, 2 February 2012; Vol. 539, c. 342WH.]

Five years on, despite the change of franchise, nothing has changed. GTR still consistently ranks among the operators with the lowest customer satisfaction public performance measures.

The failings that other hon. Members and I raised five years ago remain failings today. Something must be done to improve Govia passenger services for all those who rely on them. It is a simple premise that to deliver an efficient, mobile workforce, we need a decent, well run and affordable rail transport service. People of all ages expect a rail service fit for the 21st century. The travelling public are being asked to pay ever more for their rail fares, and we in Parliament must ask serious questions about the services they are experiencing up and down the country.

I could not speak in a debate on commuter train services in my constituency without referring to the shadow being cast by the Radlett rail freight proposal, which my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Oliver Dowden) and I believe may have a catastrophic impact on the already hugely inadequate commuter service. The application for this strategic rail freight site started in in 2006. In December 2016—10 years after assurances were given that access would be granted—Network Rail said that it would be in a position to confirm an “efficient scheduling strategy” once the capability and capacity analysis team completed its evaluation. However, it responded only last week, and its response, which was about essential works disruption and pathing, raises far more questions than it answers.

The Government’s national policy statement on national networks in 2014 identified London and the south-east as the areas with busiest passenger services, with passenger carriage set to increase by 46.1% by 2033. Moreover, the Department for Transport’s 2016 rail freight strategy said:

“Rail freight services operate in response to customer and supply chain demands, making it more challenging to plan for freight services than passenger services, which tend to run to a regular timetable and route.”

Commuters in my constituency certainly wish passenger services would run to a regular timetable and route.

Will the Minister guarantee that the proposed strategic rail freight interchange will not add further delays and cancellations for my constituents, who are already at breaking point? Will he undertake to scrutinise any plans to deliver the site link tunnel, and will he test those plans against the potential disruption to services? I am concerned that the significant rail works necessary to deliver the site will mean a protracted period of disruption that cannot be justified by the site’s limitations. In case the Minister is not aware, the site is in a village with no motorway access. It has a life span of 30 years and is constrained from expansion, unlike the expansion forecast for passenger services. This inadequate proposal cannot be allowed to interfere with the exciting prospect of better and more frequent passenger services for my constituents.

What can be done to improve the current situation? Commuter groups such as the Train Suffragettes in St Albans have suggested changes that would go a long way towards improving the overall service that passengers receive. The first is a consistent and user-friendly refund system to allow passengers to reclaim expenditure, including taxi costs incurred because of delays and cancellations. The second is opening station ticket barriers when there have been delays, in order to ease platform congestion, which is often described as being at a dangerous level.

The third suggestion, which is vital, is to improve communication at all levels. Passengers are fed up with being in the dark when trains have been delayed or cancelled. They have suggested following the model of the London underground, where—as I am sure the Minister is aware—when a tube is held in a tunnel, the driver immediately makes an announcement to let passengers know the reason for delay and how long a wait is anticipated. When a tube station is closed, the driver will helpfully suggest alternative connecting routes for passengers.

The fourth suggestion, which is regularly raised, relates to communication between drivers and staff at stations—St Albans station in my case. Passengers need to be able to speak to station staff to find out exactly what is going on and what has caused the delay or cancellation.

Finally, passengers demand that fares be reduced, or at least frozen, until Thameslink vastly improves the service on the line. I called for the same thing in 2012, but five years later the catastrophic situation that my constituents are experiencing is exactly the same. We also face the impact of the strategic rail freight interchange’s disruptions being put into the mix. I suggest that we are on our knees in St Albans, and the Minister needs to take drastic action now.

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Subsequent Intervention

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Many of my passengers say that they do not want to have to claim; they simply want the service they have paid for. Delay repay is better, but on the other hand the service needs to improve, because otherwise they just get money back for a bad service. That is not what they want; they want the journey they were guaranteed.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) on securing this debate and presenting her case, as she always does, with great vigour and force; I expect no less from her. She is right to hold Ministers to account for the service on her railway.

Passengers expect a timely, punctual and reliable service, and when they do not get it, they are right to want to understand why, and what Ministers and the train operators intend to do about it. This has been a helpful debate on what is occurring with Thameslink, and I am grateful to both the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) and my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Oliver Dowden) for their contributions. There was also a sensible contribution from the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell). We may not agree on the final paragraphs of her speech, but I thought that much of what she said made great sense.

I am aware of how important it is that we deal with this issue. As I said, passengers want a service that they can rely upon, and if they cannot, that should be a concern for us all. The Thameslink service is vital for our country, not least because our capital city depends upon it. Reliability of services through central London is critical. It is one of Europe’s busiest rail routes, so it is right that passengers will see new stations—and better stations, in fact—new trains, new infrastructure and new systems to increase capacity, reduce crowding and provide better connections for passengers across London and the wider south-east.

A number of points have been made in the debate, but I want to focus first and foremost on answering the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans. I often find that these one-hour debates are neither fish nor fowl, and I want to give proper attention to the points made by the Member who secured the debate without ignoring the other points made. Normally I run out of time in that ambition, so if I do not manage to respond to all the points now, I ask Members to make sure that I reply to them all subsequently.

The first point made by my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans was about the impact of the new trains. Of course, people want new trains. It is right to point out that the new Thameslink trains have advanced technology; they are more spacious and modern by their very definition. We have contracted Siemens to deliver 115 of them overall. We have 37 currently in service, between Bedford and Brighton, on the Wimbledon loop and on services in Kent. We expect all Thameslink services to be served by Class 700 trains by October 2017.

Train performance on the brand-new trains is improving bit by bit every period, but I recognise that it has not been good enough. I have spoken to Siemens myself to urge improvement. I know that it is working very closely with GTR. With every software improvement we see a significant improvement, but it is worth bearing it in mind that this platform is a step beyond what Siemens has produced before with its Desiro platform. There will always be slightly more challenges with such a new piece of rolling stock, but we are seeing significant improvement over time, and I fully expect to see significant improvement in reliability over the coming weeks.

My hon. Friend the Member for St Albans gave a number of examples of where her constituents were not getting the service they desire. I have been hearing those tales about this GTR network since I started in this role last July, and that is what has inspired me to focus on trying to deliver the rail ombudsman that we had in our manifesto as rapidly as I can. That is making good progress. I want to ensure that passengers can get binding arbitration at the end of the day where they cannot secure the right outcome from their appeals. We do not want these situations to occur—far from it—but where they do, I want the passenger to feel empowered. That is why I wanted to ensure that we had passenger representation on the Gibb report panel, for example—to ensure that their voice was being heard.

I was fascinated to hear about the train suffragettes to whom my hon. Friend referred. I would be delighted if she could send me more of their ideas about how the service could be improved, and I would be happy to take on board as many of them as possible.

I should also highlight Thamestink, which is the campaign group in my constituency. I would be grateful if the Minister could extend the invitation to that group as well.

I always risk creating extra work for my private office in inviting all submissions, wherever they are from, but I am more than happy to receive them and give them my full attention.

A number of hon. Members mentioned what is referred to in the industry as passenger information during disruption. It has been a major concern of mine that passengers may, at the breakfast table, consult their mobile phone, get one piece of information that their train is running, beetle down to the station to get the train and then discover that for some reason it has been cancelled. There are too many sources of information across the industry. The Office of Rail and Road has two key obligations under law. One is improving passenger information during disruption. I have asked it to look closely at how that is working across the south-east quadrant as a whole, because I have concerns about both GTR and Southeastern ensuring that we have consistent information. I accept that that is a key point, and it is one that I am taking up.

My hon. Friend the Member for St Albans has raised concerns both with me and with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about the Radlett freight interchange. Those representations were augmented today by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Oliver Dowden). I genuinely recognise those concerns; that is why I want to ensure that the timetable is protected from the impact of the works. Network Rail has reassured my Department, just as it has reassured both my hon. Friends, that the work at Park Street has been planned to have minimum impact on passengers, as freight trains will run only outside peak times and overnight, but I recognise that the concerns remain and that there is a wish to have greater oversight of the detail of what is being planned. I suspect the best thing I can offer is to broker a meeting with Network Rail, with me present as well, and perhaps we can test some of those assumptions against what my officials and the Department are also aware of. That might be of assistance to my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans, so we will co-operate as best we can to try to find that reassurance.

My hon. Friend also mentioned overcrowding at St Albans station. We are extending the platform to accommodate 12-carriage trains as part of the Thameslink programme. GTR is working to deliver extended automatic ticket gates at platform 4, which I believe is called the Ridgmont entrance, by 2019. The main station building will also receive an enhanced retail offering, a larger concourse area to accommodate peak periods and associated platform furniture and shelter facilities to improve the station environment. I recognise that there remain capacity concerns at St Albans station. We are thinking through the implications of that for future rail control periods.

In terms of future Thameslink services and how they will benefit St Albans, it is a matter of improved peak frequency and more capacity between central London, St Albans and Bedford, with more peak services, new cross-London routes, and Thameslink services reinstated to serve London Bridge. I expect passengers to see more comfort benefits, with more than 3,000 standard-class seats into London St Pancras, which is 15% extra from today, particularly through using the 12-carriage trains.

Essentially, Thameslink is all about expanding capacity on a key commuter route. We are trying to deliver the trains and the infrastructure to enable that, with 24 trains an hour in the peak through the Thameslink core between Blackfriars and St Pancras, which is an additional nine trains in each direction.

Part of our focus is on making sure that we have the right infrastructure—not just track but signalling. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere is right to identify that we need to make sure that signalling and timetabling are robust. We have a planning board, chaired by Chris Gibb, of Gibb report fame, and an assurance panel, chaired by another industry expert, Chris Green, double-checking the work that is going on to make sure it is reliable and will deliver the outputs that we seek.

To date, the Thameslink programme has delivered a new Blackfriars station connecting both side of the Thames. We have seen major enhancements at Farringdon, platform extensions on midland main line stations to allow longer trains and, as I said, 37 of the new class 700 trains. There are new maintenance depots at Three Bridges in Crawley and Hornsey in north London, and many hon. Members will be familiar with the new London Bridge station, two thirds of the concourse of which has been open since August 2016.

What else can passengers expect? The rest of London Bridge station will be open for business in early 2018. The new class 700 trains will start operating on Great Northern routes and on services in Kent and Sussex. Entire new journeys, such as Cambridge to Gatwick, will open up new journey options and connections for customers, including an interchange with the Elizabeth line services at Farringdon, which I think will transform how people approach travel options within London. Most importantly, from 2018 there will be services every two to three minutes through the central London core between Blackfriars and St Pancras International.

I recognise concerns about performance. We have seen performance steadily improving since the start of the year. When we are able to focus on improving the network, rather than just on industrial relations, we can deliver a real improvement in performance, working together with the drivers. The jump in public performance from 62% last December to a high of 85% this year reinforces that point, but I recognise that we need to do better—85% is still not good enough. We continue to have an immense amount of pressure on the network.

We are also looking carefully at the future Thameslink timetable. Journeys will be improved with better travel across the network, but modern track will make journeys more reliable and new trains will provide additional capacity. GTR has been actively seeking feedback from any interested parties on the timetable changes to make sure that they best match passenger need. The second stage of the consultation has just closed and we are looking carefully at what people are saying.

As I mentioned earlier, our Thameslink industry readiness board, chaired by Chris Gibb, is doing important work. Thameslink brings many other franchises on to its network, and the board is looking at making sure we maximise the potential for all aspects of the train network.

My hon. Friend the Member for St Albans mentioned delay repay, as did the shadow Minister. We have brought “delay repay 15” specifically into GTR as the first franchise to trial it, because we recognise the impact that the disturbances across the network as a whole have had. I share the concern that we need to explain more carefully that the impact of Thameslink is not just felt south of London. It is often hard to envisage how Thameslink is a regional service. What occurs north of London has an impact south of London and vice versa. It is worth highlighting, for example, that right-time presentation, as we call it—in other words, the right-time arrival of the train at the station—is rarely higher than 50% on services from the north of London going south through to Brighton. That indicates that problems in Brighton on trains going northwards also impact on punctuality and reliability, so investment in both sides of the central core is absolutely crucial.

We have improved delay repay, although I take on board the point about improving its delivery. We have to be careful about our terminology, as I have learned. Automated compensation is about improving the behind-the-scenes progress of individual train operating companies. It is about someone getting their compensation without doing anything to achieve it. That requires them to demonstrate that they have been on the train in question. They can either nominate their usual commuter train, in which case it can be automatic compensation, or, where they have not specified a train, they must prove that they were on the delayed train. There is sadly a risk of fraud, and we are talking about considerable sums of money from regular commuters, so there has to be that element of assurance.

I share the ambition of the hon. Member for York Central, which is why I have been pushing for delay repay to be rolled out as much as possible. Passengers have a right to expect it. We need to be much better at making people aware of it and confident about using it. I would rather, as the hon. Member for St Albans said, that there were no delays at all; then we would have a better service in the first place.

As I often mention, there is a £300 million investment in improvement across the Thameslink network. Not all of that is occurring south of London. Hon. Members may think this an issue just on the Brighton main line, but it is not. We are investing in additional land sheriff shifts to reduce trespass and railway crime across the entire length of the line, and there will be more use of predict and prevent condition-monitoring software and processes on the infrastructure. There will be additional incident response teams and embankment works at New Barnet. All of that is occurring north of London on the stretch that covers St Albans. Because of the point I made earlier about interaction, service delays, either north or south, inevitably have an impact on St Albans at some point.

We will continue to deliver that £300 million until December 2018, when we cease the current control period. We will need to invest further in control period 6, and we will be making future announcements about how that spending will be allocated. We are committed to doing what is needed to bring this stretch of track up to the standards required to deliver timely and punctual rail services.

I will try to make a bit of progress, because I recognise that I have not covered any of the points made by the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood. I am not sure whether the shadow Minister had time to be briefed on this before she arrived here, but there will be talks tomorrow at the Department involving GTR, ASLEF and, I think, the RMT—I am not sure whether that is precisely correct. Hopefully, that will be an opportunity to have the discussion the hon. Lady is aiming for.

I do not think anyone disagrees that having a second person on board is a bad thing. We have been able to have a second person on board across the network where GTR is in operation. That is a good thing in my view. The issue will be the circumstances in which a train may depart if someone is not available. That is the narrow point that was in dispute in the past, and perhaps tomorrow will be the chance to resolve that—we will have to wait and see.

The hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood made a number of perfectly relevant suggestions. I am not sure I can do them justice in two minutes, but if it would be helpful to her I would like her to come to see me and my officials to go through them in more detail. I am aware of schemes such as the expansion of Loughborough Junction and Camberwell, and she deserves a better response than me saying, “We will look at it.” If she gets in touch, I will be more than happy to meet her. I know the Secretary of State met the Mayor yesterday and had constructive discussions.

On the hon. Lady’s point about resilience, we are already seeing greater resilience through a re-diagramming of services. Part of the problem is drivers joining and leaving a service as it passes through the GTR network. By simplifying the diagrams with the agreement of the drivers, we can make for a more resilient service by ensuring that that interruption is reduced.

I noted the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere. We should not overlook the fact that GTR was criticised in the Gibb report—as was the Department. We saw penalties imposed on GTR last week, which will go towards improving the network. This is not just about trade unions, GTR or the Department; it is about an entire ecosystem, as some have pointed out. I heard my hon. Friend’s point about car parking, and I know the rail delivery group is looking at that. The passenger’s experience begins when they decide to make a journey, and that includes car parking.

Vertical integration is moving according to plan. We have already seen some of the benefits for this franchise of getting Network Rail and GTR to work more closely together and of continuing to work with TfL on the Oyster zone, which should help my hon. Friend’s constituents in particular. One highlight of the last week was the rail delivery group’s announcement of new statistics on right-time arrivals at stations, which I urge all hon. Members to have a look at.

If there is anything I have missed, I ask Members to get in touch. We will keep Members informed—

 

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