Train delays: Rail minister grilled about frequent cancellations and disruption
Train delays and cancellations across the Southern, Gatwick Express and Thameslink network have become so common it’s almost more newsworthy when there aren’t any issues.
Changes to the role of conductors have led to disputes between unions and Govia Thameslink Railway, which runs all three services, and have resulted in industrial action and coincided with unprecedented levels of sickness among conductors.
Reporter Thomas Mackintosh has spoken to Claire Perry MP, Parliamentary Undersecretary of State for Transport, on what the Government is doing to help resolve the problems, and who she thinks is responsible for them.
This dispute has been triggered by a prospective change to the role of guards. Is changing the role of guards a Government decision, or a Govia Thameslink Railway decision? Tony Miles from ‘Modern Railways magazine’ said on Radio 4 this morning that changes to the roles of guards are Government policy, which Govia Thameslink Railway is simply implementing. So stripping Govia Thameslink Railway of the franchise and giving it to another company would not make any difference, as new operators would have to implement the same changes?
Let’s be clear what the government is contracting for. We have a contract with Govia Thameslink Railway to operate these services during a time of a huge amount of disruption – which you know in terms of the London Bridge and the Thameslink programme – and to introduce brand new trains, class 700 trains which will provide far more spaces and a much, much nicer train operating environment for customers. We haven’t contracted with them for them to do anything with their workforce, that is the company’s decision but it is the case these new trains will be using start of the art technology which means the driver controls the doors. They press the buttons and they manage security. This is the technology which is used incredibly safely right across other countries and across our network and also it means the conductor who is sitting literally operating the doors no longer does that and that frees up that person on board to get out there and help the customers that are taking the train. You have a brand new train being introduced, that by the way we’ve all bought, taxpayers have spent £2billion quid buying these trains, that are a much better train for customers, mean the second staff member and the overwhelming majority of the services will not lose that second staff member.
So Govia Thameslink Railway’s decision to change the role of the guards is nothing to do with the Government?
Let me just be quite clear, because I’m not sure we’re on the same page, changing role of the guard is the function of buying brand new trains for customers where the guard no longer has to operate the doors. They can be freed up to help customers. [There is nothing] unreasonable about wanting to introduce new trains to customers and free up the second staff member to help passengers, what is unreasonable about that?
First off, the Government has got a contract with the company who is doing it. Secondly let’s look at what is going on; we are trying to make the service better for the millions of people who are using this service who will benefit from the £2 billion of investment and the trains have been bought and contracted for and the company quite rightly wants to get them out as soon as possible to alleviate the overcrowding.
So when can we see these trains coming in?
You already can, they’re already running on the Gatwick to Brighton line. The fleet being introduced now is 115 trains which will be out running on the lines, starting more broadly on the lines in July. And the whole fleet will be out by 2018. So by 2018 you get the brand new trains, you get London Bridge rebuilt, the unpicking of the lines, the untangle of the lines approaching London Bridge, you get a lot of investment for the benefit of customers and to me it is incomprehensible that the unions are blocking this.
If I can just read you the Aslef newsletter from June in relation to doors operated by drivers. It says: “It’s time to draw a line, dig the trenches and prepare for war.” The unions are declaring war on the people that live in the area you represent who just want to get home. I don’t think that’s a very balanced approach for the unions and I am determined that they should sit down with the company and work for the benefit of the customers.
Well, what has been interesting is I have been the Rail Minister for the last two years and it was quite clear that part of the reason the investment in London Bridge had never been undertaken was how disruptive it was for the travelling public, so all of those works have absolutely caused disruption and when it was starting to get back to what customers expect, in April this year, the public performance measure was the highest it had been in six months.
It was starting to come together and since then, through a combination of official strikes and unofficial working practices like the huge jump in sickness, all bets are off. So we know that this railway, if we get the new trains in place and the infrastructure open as planned, can get back to a high performance railway but we’ve got to have the staff members on board to do that as well.
Yes, but I’m sure you’ve seen that on a regular basis the trains are delayed and cancelled at short notice. This hasn’t just been going on for weeks, it has been going on since the start of the year – what is going to be done in the short term?
That is true, as I said in April the performance level was about 85 per cent, in fact I can give you the exact number – it was 83.8% – and that’s trains getting to their destinations within five minutes, and that is on Southern rail – so it was not perfect but absolutely getting there. And since then we’ve started having this industrial action, official and unofficial, I am looking at June 13 – the number of trains that were cancelled because of drivers not showing up: 254. I’m sorry if you feel I’m not answering your questions but this is about drivers and the conductors and the company sorting out this dispute as quickly as possible for the benefit of the travelling public.
We’ve spoken to commuters who have their working lives and personal lives disrupted on a daily basis, one man even lost his job because of the train delays. People have had to cancel evening activities – is this fair for people to have this stress?
No. Commuters in Britain are pretty long suffering. Commuters rely on daily plans, they know what time they need to leave to get to the station, they have to know that the trains are running so they can get to work on time and importantly to get home, or pick up their kids from school or from day care. It is completely unfair and I am afraid I hold the unions almost completely to account for this. They have declared war on the customer. This is not about the customer, this is about defending the indefensible in terms of bringing in new trains and new staff roles and by the way no one is losing their job. This is a growth industry with lots of opportunities.
Would the Government ever strip Govia Thameslink Railway of the franchise, or administer any other sanctions and how bad do things have to be before a change?
To be clear the company is penalised financially for failure to perform on its contract and so far several million pounds has flowed as a result of those penalties. But let me ask you this, if I was to say right that’s enough, someone else has to run it – first of all the people running this railway, particularly on the Southern side of it, are pretty experienced railway operators, they are among the best in the industry.
And secondly, it just becomes somebody else’s industrial dispute. So how can changing the name on the front plate of the company make the unions accept these changes that are at no job loss to them, no pay reduction and benefit directly the customers they are supposed to serve? I can’t see that changing the franchise is the answer, the answer is to get the staff and the company to sort this out for the benefit of customers. Changing the franchise does not solve the problem.
Has the Department for Transport assessed the economic impact of the recent delays? Can you put a monetary figure on how much this dispute is costing the UK?
It is a brilliant question and historically to my surprise people have not modelled the impact of delays which is either this dispute, or leaves on the line. There are not robust figures about this but I have commissioned academic research on this point because I want the financial cost but also the human cost to be absolutely recognised right across the department and across the industry.
If you were a commuter and not an MP, and were subject to so much delays would you be calling for a change?
Hang on, MP’s commute all the time let’s be quite clear, Hugh Merryman [MP for Bexhill and Battle] commutes daily with Southern, David Evennett [MP for Bexleyheath and Crayford] takes the Southeastern trains. I take the train down to Pewsy [in Wiltshire] pretty regularly. If I were coming in on these trains on a daily basis I would want to know the facts behind it in the dispute and I would want to understand what was being done to sort it out and the facts are these – are staff members refusing to accept new trains and new roles which will directly benefit the customers they are supposed to be serving? I think that is completely unjustified.
So the responsibility of the current chaos lies with whom?
It is a joint responsibility between the company and the staff members and the unions and look, can I just say one thing – I am not actually particularly interested in apportioning the blame. I just want this to get sorted and whatever everybody has to do, the union leaders, the company’s management, the Department for Transport, customer groups – let’s just fix this because we have to sort this out. The one thing we know is that people want to use the railway and we have the new trains and we have the investment that is there waiting to be introduced.
But this has been going on for months and talking is seemingly getting nowhere, if anything it has got worse, there are regular strikes – surely something has to be done to intervene?
Well I think that is a good question for the union leaders as to why they are continuing to strike, but can I just reiterate this – the underlying performance trends were improving, the level of disruption at London Bridge has been absolutely unprecedented and commuters have been very long suffering with that and what is so frustrating for me was that as the network was starting to improve. All of that has been negated by a side of industrial action which I think is completely unjustified.
Response from GTR following Ms Perry’s comments:
A spokesman said: “These strikes by conductors are totally unnecessary and the subsequent unprecedented levels of sickness and shortage of train crew is causing our passengers untold misery. All we want to do is extend a safe, proven way of running trains that has been in use on 60% of our network for some 25 years.
“We recognise that our service has not been good enough and that this is exacerbated by the essential London Bridge construction work. But we can turn it round and we will turn it round as soon as possible.”