Previous Section Index Home Page

3 Feb 2010 : Column 116WH—continued

I have talked about my own experiences, but there are three problems with the system of separating track and train. It is almost as if there are three parallel universes.
3 Feb 2010 : Column 117WH
First, there are the train operations run from West Hampstead and controlled by Network Rail. Secondly, there is an entirely separate universe called train indicators, which bear no relation whatever to what is happening in the real world. It might say, "11.14: on time" but by 11.25 there is still no train. All of a sudden, the indicator says, "Train 1 terminates here" but there is still no train. Then the second train is half an hour later, so I miss Question Time in Parliament. That happens constantly.

There is then the separate universe of the automated announcements that bear no relation to the trains or the indicators, and seem to have a life of their own. Just occasionally, a real human being makes an announcement at the last minute, but, by and large, the announcements say one thing, the indicators say another and the train operations are in another universe again. The system is complete nonsense because of the fragmentation of the railway industry following privatisation. The idea is that we run a competitive arrangement in which one part of the system has to pay fines to another if there is a failure in the service. In other words, one part punishes another.

Moreover, we have a delay attribution system. If a First Capital Connect train is late there may be a delay in its connection with an East Midlands train, which then might have a problem connecting with a cross-country route in, say, Sheffield, and people will miss their connections. If the fault is traced back to First Capital Connect, it can be fined. So First Capital Connect goes out of its way to ensure that it is not blamed, because it does not want to be fined, but someone has to pay somewhere.

Again, if Network Rail has a problem, it will not want to pay the train operating company, so it goes out of its way not to concede any guilt in things that go wrong. All these independent operating elements of our railway system avoid speaking to each other because they do not want to be blamed or be forced to pay fines to each other. The whole system is a complete nonsense. If it was run as one system by a railway industry, we would not have this problem.

It is all because of a mad economic theory, which was explained to me on one occasion by a supposed transport economist-he was quite a nice man. He said the idea was that all the different components of the industry would compete in a market. Market forces would operate and we would have lower costs, lower fares and a better service, because that is what competition does, does it not? In fact, we now have the highest fares in Europe, the least efficient railway network and the highest level of costs, particularly for railway maintenance and laying new track. The opposite is true. I pointed that out to my friend the transport economist. I said, "Your theory does not work because we have had the opposite on every occasion." He said, "Yes, I am afraid that the theory doesn't work."

We have ruined a major economy's railway system by basing it on a barking mad theory that does not work. I suggest that the way forward is to take back all the franchises, put them in house, build an integrated railway system again and have a sensible railway, as they do in continental Europe. Costs and fares would be reduced, and we would have a much more reliable service.

Anne Main: The hon. Gentleman keeps harping on about the continent of Europe. Perhaps he might cast his mind back to the rail services that we had in the
3 Feb 2010 : Column 118WH
1970s and 1980s.That is a better comparison. He could even look at the rail services that have been repatriated and are operating now. Let us forget elsewhere and talk about here, because my commuters care about the services and not what is happening in France.

Kelvin Hopkins: I am very happy to talk about British Rail. The former rail regulator, Tom Winsor, said in this building, in my hearing, that "when BR handed over the railways to the privateers, they were handed over" in good order." He is not a dyed in the wool socialist like me; he is an objective observer who was a regulator. He also said that British Rail "worked miracles on a pittance". It was desperately underfunded, but it still managed to run a railway.

A report was produced by the organisation Catalyst, of which I was an active member. It discovered-amazingly-that the highest level of productivity for any railway in Europe happened under BR. BR had to be efficient because it had to work miracles on a pittance and because of the way in which it operated. The problem was that we did not invest enough in the railways and they became backward. We had Government after Government after Government who thought that the railways were dying, were in the past and riddled with trade unions; they did not like the railways. Even so, Mrs. Thatcher refused to privatise the railways. It was John Major who privatised them because he wanted to demonstrate his right wing machismo and that he was harder than Maggie.

Stephen Hammond: This is the second debate in two days in which I have been fortunate enough to listen to the hon. Gentleman extolling the virtues of a past that not all of us recognise. If that is his view of the past, why has there been such a rise in ridership and passengers on the railways post-privatisation and why was patronage declining when it was nationalised?

Kelvin Hopkins: We have seen a rapid growth in the economy with vast numbers of new jobs, particularly in the south-east of England. The roads are now so crowded that people are forced on to the railways because there is no serious alternative. None the less, people want to travel by rail, but they want decent fares. Public subsidy has multiplied three times since privatisation, so the amount of public money going into the railway system, as well as the private money from fares, has massively increased in that time.

However, people have demonstrated that they believe in railways, which has come as a shock to many of our leaders and particularly to the Department for Transport. People want to travel on the railways, but they want a decent, reliable service, they want to pay acceptable fares and, if they are taxpayers, they want to minimise the subsidy.

Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): I have the hugest respect for the hon. Gentleman, and we frequently travelled home together on the train at night until I was forced into my car by the recent debacle over First Capital Connect. He paints a lovely picture, and we talked about these issues often on the train journey home, but his proposal would take such huge reorganisation and such capital expenditure that it is unrealistic. Our commuters want to know what can be done quickly-in the short term-to make things better, and nationalising the national railway will not answer their problems.

3 Feb 2010 : Column 119WH

Kelvin Hopkins: I much enjoyed my train journeys and conversations with the hon. Lady, although we did not talk about railways at the time. Nationalising the railways would save vast amounts of public and private money; all the money that is being shovelled into the maintenance and construction side and the train-operating side, and the £1 million profit that goes to the chief executive, would become part of a nationalised system. There would not be those operations. British Rail ran cash-limited operations, and it saved vast sums of public money.

I would like to speak for much longer, but I have taken more than my time, and many other hon. Members want to speak. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister seriously to consider taking not only First Capital Connect's franchise, but all the franchises back into the public sector to recreate a national railway system that we can all be proud of and which we can all use every day.

Several hon. Members rose-

Joan Walley (in the Chair): Order. A few Members still wish to catch my eye, so I remind everyone to be co-operative.

3.11 pm

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins), who is a regular commuter on the line. I will not follow him down every branch line or get involved in the debate about nationalisation and privatisation, but I recognise much of what he said about the reliability of the First Capital Connect service.

I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on her stalwart work on behalf of St. Albans commuters and on her general defence of the interests of the people of St. Albans. On this issue, in particular, she has done a tremendous amount of work, not least in securing the debate, and she deserves all our congratulations. To save time, I shall speak about First Capital Connect as it affects my constituents. I endorse all my hon. Friend's comments, which chime with the experience of the thousands of my constituents who want answers to the same questions.

First Capital Connect serves two lines through my constituency. One is the Great Northern line, which runs through Potters Bar, and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) referred to it. My constituents and others on the line were saddened when they lost the service on Remembrance Sunday, and I know that veterans wanted to use the line on that day.

However, it is my constituents on the other line operated by First Capital Connect-the former Thameslink line-who have borne the brunt of the disruption since 10 November. The line serves the stations at Radlett and at Elstree and Borehamwood in my constituency. Those stations are at the southern end of the line, so commuters there are used to trains already being packed when they arrive. It was therefore a tremendous blow when the service was reduced overnight on 10 November from a 100 per cent. service to a 50 per cent. service. Like them, I know from my experience as a regular commuter-I recognise other regular commuters here today, including the hon. Member for Luton, North-that even when a so-called 100 per cent. service operates, the trains are very overcrowded, particularly at peak times.

3 Feb 2010 : Column 120WH

Nadine Dorries: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Clappison: Yes, of course I will give way to my hon. Friend, whom I recognise as another veteran of the Thameslink line.

Nadine Dorries: Moments before we came into the debate, we received an almost self-congratulatory e-mail from First Capital Connect, which announced that there were only 135 cancellations in the week from 25 to 31 January. It is almost as if those cancellations were the only issue, but as my hon. Friend says, they force more people on to fewer trains, making people late and making their journeys incredibly uncomfortable.

Mr. Clappison: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. She, too, has defended her constituents' interests and she is right that our constituents and commuters should not have to put up with low standards, overcrowding, cancelled trains, trains that are not in a particularly good condition and a service that is generally unreliable.

What is more to the point-the hon. Member for Luton, North was absolutely correct about this, as I can testify from my own experience-the trains were unreliable even when a 50 per cent. service was running and the trains were overcrowded. There were still cancellations. A commuter standing on the platform at St. Pancras station, St. Albans station or Radlett station when a train arrived had the feeling that a miracle had occurred. Many of my constituents were much less fortunate than me and would often simply be unable to get on a train at all at Radlett or Borehamwood.

As my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans rightly said, our constituents pay substantial amounts for this service, and there are no alternative lines and no, or only inferior, alternative modes of transport. Like my hon. Friend, my constituents are aware that the model operated by the company behind the service is not sustainable and is likely to result in the consequences that I have described. They are absolutely fed up with their nightmare commuting experience, the overcrowded trains, the cancellations and the lack of reliability. Every day, commuting is a nightmare for them.

My constituents are therefore looking for answers from the debate. As my hon. Friend said, they would like to see a more generous compensation scheme than the one that has been put in place. I accept that the current scheme has been improved, but my constituents need to see further improvements. They also want to hear that they will receive a much-improved, reliable service that is commensurate with the considerable amounts that they pay.

I am grateful to Mr. Neal Lawson of First Capital Connect for accepting my invitation to come to Borehamwood railway station next Wednesday evening, and I am sure that my constituents will have many questions to put to him. I am also grateful for the opportunity to meet Mary Grant beforehand. However, the service as it stands is not acceptable, and the company must face up to that.

My constituents would like to know a little more from Ministers, and I certainly echo the questions that my hon. Friend raised. As the people in charge of the franchises, Ministers have responsibility for these issues. I therefore have some specific questions for the Minister, and I would be grateful if he could reply to them, because my constituents want some answers.

3 Feb 2010 : Column 121WH

When exactly did Ministers learn that there would be problems on the line? When did they know, for example, that there would be a 50 per cent. reduction in the service? When they did know, what did they do about it? What steps did they take subsequently? Given their current responsibilities, what is their attitude to the service going forward? What improvements do they expect to see?

One improvement, in particular, that my constituents want to see, and which has been mentioned today, is the introduction of sufficiently long trains-eight-carriage trains, rather than four-carriage trains. It is not acceptable for a service with a so-called 100 per cent. timetable to operate with short-form trains, because that continues the problem of overcrowding.

My constituents want to know what improvements Ministers expect in the service and what they are doing to bring about those improvements. They want to know what Ministers are doing to make the quality of people's lives better, to make their commute less of a nightmare and to give them value for money. My constituents have had a nightmare, which is quite unacceptable, and Ministers must face up to their share of the responsibility for what has happened.

3.18 pm

Patrick Hall (Bedford) (Lab): I wish to make a short contribution to the debate, which was secured by the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main). Yesterday, I was pleased to initiate an Adjournment debate in this Chamber about the Thameslink programme and I made a number of comments about the considerable inconvenience suffered by many of my constituents day after day between the middle of November and the end of January.

Now, however, I want to concentrate on four issues: driver numbers, communications, compensation and the future of the franchise. On driver numbers, the Bedford depot is the biggest in the FCC franchise, and I am informed by FCC management and ASLEF that there should be 186 mainline drivers there. A few weeks ago, there were 179 and recruitment was already under way to address the shortfall. However, although the establishment is designed to cover the full timetable, holidays and normal sickness, it does not accommodate training, which is an integral feature of railway operations on the Thameslink network, and therefore of FCC's business.

Driver training is required for the operation of the Bedford-Sevenoaks franchise that FCC took over, and the 23 new class 377 trains, which have now at last been delivered, and it is also required to cover changes in track, signalling and so on, brought about by the Thameslink programme's engineering works. Because of that considerable training requirement, ASLEF agreed that its members would work rest days to enable the overall package to be met, but working rest days is voluntary. While there is good will and co-operation, everything is fine, but in the light of what has happened in the past two and a half months, which has been an awful experience for so many thousands of people, it is clear that the voluntary arrangement is vulnerable. There is too much at stake for things to be left as they are. Therefore, there is an urgent need to review the overall number of drivers, as well as other working arrangements.

3 Feb 2010 : Column 122WH

Both management and unions are fully signed up to the Thameslink programme, and all the improvements in capacity and service for the passenger that it will bring about. Therefore, a more secure means of maintaining normal train operation is needed, as the engineering and other works unfold. Given the understandable lack of public confidence in FCC at the moment, both the company and the unions should look to inform the public about how driver numbers and working arrangements will provide a robust and reliable service in the years ahead. It is also the duty of the Department for Transport to ensure that that is done, if necessary as a condition of franchise.

I want to touch quickly on communications, to passengers at stations and to FCC staff, who can in turn inform passengers and answer questions. Communication has been a disaster in the past several weeks. I am reliably informed that the current passenger information system is a manual one. It is user-unfriendly and it does not function in real time. It is okay if nothing goes wrong on the railway, but the minute something happens it is completely inadequate. It just cannot cope and is now being demonstrated to be, to put it politely, a pretty useless system. FCC has recently agreed to spend money on improving it-a process that will, I understand, take another 40 weeks.

However, there are other, industry-wide issues about communication with passengers. I understand that the Department for Transport has taken the initiative, together with Network Rail and train operators, to address that. I raised that yesterday with my hon. Friend the Minister, and I look forward to receiving his response, if not today, certainly in writing, on what is being planned-not just on Thameslink, but nationally-and when changes will happen.

On the package of compensation to passengers, I have received some e-mails from constituents complaining about the inadequacy of the offer. However, FCC responded very recently to concerns that had been widely expressed about its operations as a whole, as well as the compensation, and it has boosted the offer, as other hon. Members have mentioned. Of course, it is impossible to please everyone on such issues, but now some people who know about the latest improvements have told me that they consider the discount to be generous. That is not my word, but theirs. I understand that the system for applying for compensation has been discussed in detail with the Bedford Commuters Association and the Association of Public Transport Users and has been adjusted accordingly. We shall see how that unfolds.

Finally, I note the calls for FCC to have its franchise terminated, and it is a perfectly legitimate issue to raise, given the scale of the disruption and public dissatisfaction. However, I have come to the conclusion, partly as a result of discussions with FCC management, but also after discussions with ASLEF and the Bedford Commuters Association-and after thinking about the matter myself-that such a measure now would not solve the problem, and would introduce uncertainty when we need recovery of the service. In my view, FCC management has got the message.

Next Section Index Home Page