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I want the Minister to explain to me and my constituents why he had no sense of urgency about the matter. What did the Secretary of State agree with First Capital Connect at the meeting he held in November? Why did he not anticipate that the work to rule would cause enormous disruption to the travelling public, and why did he not insist that the message was delivered to commuters, so that they did not labour on, completely in the dark about why train services were so disrupted? When the franchise was agreed with First Capital Connect, were the Ministers aware that FCC was reliant on such a business model? It appears that they were, according to my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond). Why did they agree to it?
Were Ministers not concerned that pay negotiations were coming to a head and that a similar pattern of disruption had been experienced by FirstGroup bus services in Aberdeen in July 2009, which meant that its bus services were massively affected by a reduced timetable and lack of reliability? Again, the chaos was due to drivers working to rule in a pay dispute. It was reasonable to conclude that that model might repeat itself in the coming months for the train services of my commuters. At that point, the Minister should have had urgent talks. Ten months of talks was our understanding. He should have had urgent talks to prevent that crash from happening for the train commuters as it happened with the bus services in Aberdeen.
On 13 January, 70 per cent. of drivers who were members of ASLEF voted in favour of accepting the company's pay offer. There have been siren calls about stripping the company of its franchise, including calls from the RMT to put this and all other train services back into public ownership. I intend to flesh out those arguments, but I am sure that other hon. Members will want to come in on them.
On 13 January, First Capital Connect announced that it intended to operate the full timetable on the Thameslink route from Monday 18 January. However, the "full timetable" included short-form trains, which had less passenger capacity than usual services. When I approached the company, I was told that they were due to end today, 3 February. However, today, there are short-form trains operating. I am now told that will cease by Friday. I can only hope that it is not another false dawn. I hope that the Minister will have had talks with First Capital Connect to see whether he could do anything to get Bombardier to deliver on time, because that is part of the problem.
Mr. Burstow: It is not just that trains have been delivered late; they are not delivering the service they are meant to deliver. I gather that at the moment, First Capital Connect trains, the 377s, are breaking down after every 6,000 miles, compared with Southern, which runs the same trains and seems to keep them running for 22,000 miles before they break down. Surely that is another example of how incompetent the company is.
I am not sure whether it is the incompetence of the company or the people building the trains. I am not an expert on technical matters. I am not sure
whether it has something to do with the amount of maintenance or the time for which the trains are taken off the rails to be put into maintenance. I cannot comment on that, other than to say that it is yet another unacceptable situation.
The situation that we are discussing has been hugely disruptive and costly to many people in terms of hours wasted and opportunities lost. On 26 January-I am sorry, but there is a great list of things that I have asked the Minister that I do not have answers to-I asked the Minister what estimate he had made of the cost to commuters of the disruption. As he has not yet responded to that question, will he answer it today, please?
I also want to ask the Minister's opinion about the level of compensation being offered to my constituents, who pay large amounts to travel on such a poor service. Will he discuss that with management at First Capital Connect to ensure that all passengers are adequately compensated? Many passengers currently feel that what is on offer is not adequate compensation. It has been improved, after pressure, but it is still not much, relative to the huge amounts that people pay not to have a service or to have a service that, when they get on it, is so claustrophobically stuffed with other passengers that some people feel it is unsafe.
It has been three weeks since the pay deal was accepted and more than 100 days since the industrial action began, yet passengers are being offered compensation of only 5 per cent. or a maximum of two weeks' travel if they have a season ticket. If they buy daily tickets, they are being asked to provide proof of which particular train they caught on the day and the delays they suffered, when the company knows only too well that those delays have been crippling. If it has any doubts, it need only look at my postbag or one of the many websites and Facebook groups where passengers pass on their frustrations. First Capital Connect has agreed to pay regular travellers compensation worth 5 per cent. of the value of a season ticket or 10 free days of travel, but a first-class season ticket from St. Albans to London Bridge-a journey of about 40 minutes on a good day-costs more than £5,000 a year, and passengers were disrupted for much longer than the compensation package indicates.
Larry Heyman, partnership and integration manager at First Capital Connect, telephoned me this morning. I know that other hon. Members have been quickly sent a little missive about how much things have improved-and they have improved; things are not perfect, but they have improved. However, as the websites and correspondence show, passengers have yet to be convinced, short-form trains are still operating, some delays are still happening and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) pointed out, the communication about all this is still poor.
Short-forming trains should cease from next week. However, we have had 107 days of industrial action, which resulted in overcrowding and frustration. Should the Secretary of State consider stripping FCC of its franchise? The Minister acknowledged in a letter of 27 January that the work-to-rule was a force majeure event. Was there anything, other than that force majeure event, that the company did or did not do that rendered it in breach of the franchise? I would welcome the Minister's views.
The franchisee is obliged by the franchise to inform the Secretary of State about what steps it is taking to mitigate the effects of industrial action. At what point was the Secretary of State informed? At what point did the action become classified as force majeure? Will the Minister confirm that it was from the first notification of 26 October? Will he confirm what mitigating actions were agreed with FCC? Will he say whether the cold weather that affected services last month was considered a force majeure event?
"all reasonable endeavours to avert or prevent the occurrence of the relevant event and/or to mitigate and minimise the effects of such event".
Does the Minister think that the franchisee took reasonable action to prevent the strike and to minimise its effects, given that another part of its group had a similar situation with its bus services? Does he consider more than 100 days of disruption to be restoration
"as soon as reasonably practicable"?
Given the intense failings of First Capital Connect on more than one front, many constituents have called on me to join them in seeking the nationalisation of the franchise. Indeed, I understand that in the past few days First Capital Connect management have been summoned to see the Secretary of State. We are told that the Government could nationalise the company as early as April under a break clause that allows the Department for Transport to remove a company for poor performance after four years. An early-day motion has been tabled calling for the franchise to be nationalised, and 5,000 commuters have signed a petition calling for nationalisation. Public anger abounds on the internet, with 2,291 people having joined a Facebook protest page.
I am concerned that punishing FCC may well lead to something worse. I have no confidence that the Government will make a better job of it. In my dealings with them, they have shown a complete lack of urgency, and there is a poor level of communication.
Kelvin Hopkins: The hon. Lady talks about punishing First Capital Connect. Given all that she has said, it strikes me that the company is squeezing every last pound of profit that it can out of railway commuters and the Government in order to pay last year's £1 million salary for FirstGroup's chief executive and generate last year's £800 million profit. That is where the money has gone.
Anne Main: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should talk to those of his colleagues who helped set the contract. I am not in government, and I was not privy to these franchise agreements. The company paid heavily for that franchise; the Government wanted their shilling. He must bear that in mind when throwing those figures at me. I did not agree the pay contracts, and I did not make the franchise agreements. They were agreed by the Minister's corner.
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con):
As my hon. Friend knows, the Cambridge and Peterborough part of the line has not been quite so bad, but even there people have been telling me that they are thinking of moving home because they cannot rely on the service. Is it right for Ministers simply to brush
things aside as if everything was the fault of First Capital Connect? Ministers wrote the contracts, or at least supervised them. Should they not also take the responsibility?
Anne Main: I agree with my hon. Friend. If the cold weather was a force majeure, which is allowable under the franchise agreement, and if the strike-or work-to-rule; call it what you like-was a force majeure, what is left that would allow the Minister to strip the franchise; or is it all simply bluster, words being uttered for the sake of the angry public? That is the nub of my argument. If poor communication can strip the franchise, I would say that the Government should look to themselves; it is no better for them.
No company has ever been stripped of a franchise for poor performance since the privatisation of the rail industry in the 1990s. Connex and National Express East Coast both surrendered their contracts, but that was for financial reasons rather than industrial action. First Capital Connect carries 200,000 commuters a day, a large number of whom are from my constituency. It is vital that we get the very best result for commuters. I am not convinced about the few recent examples of nationalisation; they do not give me any confidence that that is the answer. I would welcome the Minister's views on the matter. Lord Adonis may speak of stripping the franchise, but how can we be sure that anything else would be better, given that existing franchises have not improved?
The East Coast rail franchise, which is owned by the Department for Transport, began operations on 14 November 2009. There has been a deterioration in punctuality since the Government took it over. Although trains running on time averaged 89 per cent. for most of 2009, punctuality fell to 85.2 per cent. in the first four weeks of ownership by the state-owned franchise, which represents worse performance than First Capital Connect's. In the following four weeks, 13 December to 9 January, punctuality fell to 67.2 per cent.
Perhaps the Minister would compare that with First Capital Connect before the company starts lobbing bricks about losing its franchise. Although these figures cover only eight weeks, it is the same period during which we suffered disruptions on our train services. We must ensure that that does not happen again. Does the Minister honestly believe that if the franchise was stripped it would not happen again?
In answer to a parliamentary question on 21 January, the Minister stated that the First Capital Connect franchise can run until 31 March 2015, but that the Secretary of State may exercise an option to serve notice. The franchise also contains services that pass through St. Albans which had previously been allowed to stop at City station, to resume stopping there, allowing passengers to vote with their feet. [Interruption.] I am sorry, Ms Walley, but I have missed a page in my notes. However, it will make sense when I get there. Does the Minister believe that the events of the last 100 days indicate that the company should be stripped of the franchise?
One question asked by my constituents is why we cannot have competition on the line, a point raised by the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling), as it would allow commuters to choose which company they travelled with. Many have mentioned the possibility of using East Midland Trains, a company whose services
pass through St. Albans. It had previously been allowed to stop at City station; if it resumed stopping there, passengers could vote with their feet and use services provided by other companies if the usual services had failed.
I have no idea whether that is possible, but has the Minister considered other models? Will the Minister agree to examine other workable possibilities, if he believes that First Capital Connect should not have the franchise? I am unaware of exactly what discussions the Secretary of State has had about removing the franchise or the possibility of retendering. I hope that the Minister will update us today.
It is unclear whether the Government are better placed than the current franchisee to run a reliable train service, especially given the deterioration in services on East Coast trains. However, it is possible that another franchisee would be better placed to run these services. Will the Minister give us his thoughts on that matter? It is clear that the current franchisee has failed to deliver the service that my constituents have a right to expect.
If it is to be allowed to continue running these services, First Capital Connect must be held to account-held to the franchise agreement-and kept on a tight rein. Will the Minister give an undertaking to do that and give some indication of how he can make it happen? The company must demonstrate that it has put systems in place so that such disruptions will not be allowed to recur. The improvements in service that we have been promised since the company took over the franchise must be truly forthcoming. Will the Minister come to the House, within a month, to update us on whether he is convinced that FCC is the company to continue delivering commuter services and that it has in place robust measures to ensure that services are improved?
What is the Minister's view on the negotiated contracts with drivers? I am totally unaware of what contracts are being negotiated with the new drivers being taken on by the company. If the situation is similar, the problems will happen all over again with the next round of pay bargaining-they will down tools and work to rule. Has the Minister had any discussions with First Capital Connect and other franchises to say that such actions should not be allowed in future franchises and should be stopped as soon as possible?
I continue to meet the management of First Capital Connect to discuss their part in this sorry saga, and to find out what measures have been put in place to ensure that we do not find ourselves in the same position again. Indeed, as I said, FCC management are coming to St. Albans on Friday to face my commuters. Despite the improvements of recent days, they are angry about the chaos that they have suffered and the lack of compensation. It will take a long time before their trust is won back.
Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab):
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on securing it and on speaking so trenchantly. There may be shades of difference between our views on this matter, but we are both concerned about our constituents-and not only them;
many thousands travel every day from Luton to London with First Capital Connect, and so do I. I know that other Members travel from time to time on FCC, but I use it every day unless there are no FCC trains, in which case I use East Midlands. I intimately know the line and how it has performed over the past 41 years, during which time I have commuted daily.
I am a lover of the railways, and a passionate believer in them. Given that we live in an era of global warming and want to prevent climate change, they are the transport mode of the future. I could regale hon. Members with dozens of stories-some of them amusing-about my own experiences on First Capital Connect, but I shall avoid that because it would take too long. None the less, I shall relate one short story.
One night, I was travelling home late and went for the 11.15 East Midlands train. The first stop was Luton and the destination was Nottingham. I thought that there would be no problem with the East Midlands service, but when I got to the station, I had to wait on the platform for a long time, way after the train was due to leave. Then we were told that the driver was not available. He did not have a problem with driving his train, but he could not get to work because he was relying on First Capital Connect to get him from his home to St. Pancras. There was no train, so he could not get to work and drive the East Midlands train, so even then there was a problem. I have many long stories about my experiences with the service. Even in recent times, day after day after day, I have had problems. Trains are indicated on the board and then suddenly disappear, for example.
Kelvin Hopkins: I put down an early-day motion on this matter only yesterday. I want the Government to take away the franchise and reintegrate all the train operating franchises into one rail network again. We might even call it British Rail.
Anne Main: I note the hon. Gentleman's union leanings, which I find very interesting, but will he condemn the Government's lack of urgency? The early-day motion was tabled yesterday and the Government have had since October-and perhaps even earlier-to do something about the problem. Does he agree that this has been a woeful performance by the Government, who may well be the ones who will be nationalising what he wants?
Kelvin Hopkins: I am sure that the Government would be rather worried if I started to speak on their behalf. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will speak for himself in time. Clearly, the logical answer is to take back the franchise, bring it in house and start to run it as a publicly run, publicly accountable public service. That is how railways operate on the continent of Europe; the track and train are integrated into one system. I will continue to argue that case until such time as common sense prevails and we get an integrated railway system in the future.
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