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3 Feb 2010 : Column 122WH—continued

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I accept the point that my hon. Friend makes. I should prefer the franchise to be withdrawn and the service to be brought back into public ownership, but there is a
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middle route, which the Government took with First Great Western: to issue a remedial plan, which would be monitored by the Minister directly, almost on a weekly basis, to ensure that performance was being improved and set to target.

Patrick Hall: That is a very sensible suggestion, and I hope that the Minister will respond accordingly, perhaps to confirm that that will happen.

On public ownership, I support public ownership of the entire network. I am not convinced that using the opportunity of the failure of the past two and a half months is the way to approach the issue. The Government should present measures for the renationalisation of the entire system. I think that I shall wait a long time for that, but it would be a better way to go about it than a piecemeal approach.

Despite what people have gone through in the past two and a half months, the time for anger is over. We need to move into a more measured process of delivering for the passenger. Therefore, FCC must address the serious issues that I, and others, have raised, and demonstrate to the Department for Transport and the public that it is on top of the challenge.

Joan Walley (in the Chair): I ask the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) to make her remarks brief, so that we can have time for the winding-up speeches and the Minister's reply.

3.26 pm

Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): I shall be brief. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on securing the debate. Given the energy and assiduousness with which she has represented her constituents and dealt with the issue, I cannot but point out that if the Government and the Minister had been half as energetic and attentive, and if there had been a little more pressure on First Capital Connect, some of the problems might have abated a little sooner.

The e-mail that I mentioned in an intervention, which referred to 135 cancellations in the last week in January, included a note stating:

That highlights the poor service that not only has been provided on the line in the past few months but to which we are repeatedly subjected. The past few months have been bad, but personally the past five years have not been particularly good. The result may have been a very unsatisfactory situation, but for some of us that has been going on for some time.

I want to name-check Larry Heyman, the customer services manager, who has been between a rock and a hard place, and who has done a fantastic job in trying to communicate with as many people as possible about what was happening. However, communication was, of course, the main problem. People in my constituency would wait for a train for an hour, on the platform where they had been told it would arrive; then, as it pulled into the station, the platform announcement would change, giving them insufficient time to get to the other platform, and the train would go. It is hard to put oneself in another person's position, but if someone
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who is late for work and in trouble with their managers and bosses has been standing for an hour on a freezing cold platform, and a platform change is suddenly made without notification, that person will be pretty angry.

That is something that I want to communicate: how angry my constituents have been. My e-mail account has been full. I have been given information via Twitter, e-mail and blogs, on the platform, and in letters. People have been furious. I have heard of people unable to complete training courses, and others who have been threatened by their managers that they would lose their jobs if they continued to be late. Those people have no other way to get to their employment.

The human heartache that was suffered because of how First Capital Connect behaved will not be recompensed by a mere 5 per cent. of the price of a season ticket. That will not give people back their jobs or save their face in front of their employers. It will not put right what they have been through. It will just give them a small amount of financial compensation. That, again, highlights the fact that the Government had no sense of urgency about how the catastrophe affected people's daily lives. It is a shame on the Government that they did not act more quickly-that they did not find a way to bring in drivers from other providers or other parts of the country, and do something to break the three-month deadlock.

I know that I need to be brief, Ms Walley, so I will make a final point. Regarding the financial punishment, or the loss of the franchise, whatever happens needs to happen not only from a need to punish FCC for what has gone on but as a deterrent across the country to any other rail providers that might think, even for one moment, that they can get away with treating their commuters as FCC treated our constituents. Every rail provider out there needs to know that, if that is how they treat their commuters, this is what will happen. Therefore, something very severe needs to happen to FCC. I do not know what form that action will take, but it needs to happen soon.

3.30 pm

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): I want to start by congratulating the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on securing this debate. The issue is clearly of enormous concern to her constituents and I suspect that it is also enormously important to the constituents of all the Members of Parliament who are here today, including me, although I am more of a Southern user than a First Capital Connect user.

All Members who are here today are very familiar with the history of this disaster, or debacle, which began with the issue of driver training and the voluntary arrangement that was apparently in place to provide cover. Shortly afterwards, that was followed by the bad weather, which had a serious effect on FCC and on all the other train operating companies.

FCC has been very unfortunate in that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow), who is no longer in his place, said, it has the 377 rolling stock. That stock has a very poor record, with only 6,000 miles between each breakdown. In that respect, I wonder if FCC was sold a pup, because that is a very poor reliability record. Of course, FCC then had the 319 fleet, which was very badly affected by the snow,
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which is, as it were, the Eurostar defence when it comes to cancelling trains, as it put many Eurostar trains out of operation.

It was those two factors-first, the issue of drivers and the voluntary arrangement to deal with that issue, and secondly, the disastrous performance during the snow-that prompted my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam to table early-day motion 623, which I supported him in. That called for:

He tabled that early-day motion because he and many other commuters believe that FCC has gone beyond the point of no return in relation to providing this service. That early-day motion:

In my view, that "more capable organisation" could be either another train operating company, if one is interested, or alternatively the state could run the service, to provide a comparator with the private sector, to enable us to see which of the two sectors can deliver rail services most cost-effectively.

Ms Walley, I know that you will not allow me to stray too much beyond the subject of this debate, particularly given the time that I have available, but Members may have been following what has happened with Tube Lines, which runs the tube services, and the disaster that is about to occur in terms of the cost of the services that it is providing. I believe that Transport for London could provide those services much more effectively, much more efficiently and at a lower cost.

The experience that commuters have had on FCC is reflected in my inbox; all Members here today will have had similar messages from constituents. For example, I received the following Facebook message:

We hope that that issue of drivers has now been addressed. However, when the Minister answers the very long list of questions that have been put in this debate-I will add a few to it myself-he may want to confirm whether he thinks that FCC is now, roughly speaking, dependent to the same extent as the other train operating companies on drivers being willing to work at the weekends, for instance. Alternatively, does he believe that FCC is still in a position where it is more vulnerable than those other companies?

I received another complaint about FCC by e-mail:

so, these problems have not just happened in the past six months-

Importantly, as other Members have already mentioned, the issue of dealing with employers is raised:

The e-mail goes on to talk about the issue of compensation and how FCC had offered:

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That issue of compensation is one that FCC could do a lot more to simplify and make straightforward. In other debates, other Members have discussed other methods of compensation. In Berlin, for example, there was an issue with the train service and it was resolved simply by extending everyone's ticket by a month. That was very straightforward and it required no action on the part of commuters.

Kelvin Hopkins: The hon. Gentleman mentioned Berlin. Two years ago, I was with the Rail Freight Group in Berlin and I talked to the head of German railways. He was railing against the possibility that German railways could be privatised, on the basis of the British experience of privatisation, because it would be a total disaster.

Tom Brake: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I think that he has made his position on this issue very clear.

I hope that FCC has learned the lessons from these problems, although I am a little worried about a statement by Mary Grant of FCC. She was asked about the lessons that had been learned and she stated, "You don't plan for what you expect to happen, you plan for what you don't expect to happen." Any business makes contingency arrangements so that it has a fall-back position when what it plans for does not happen.

The communications system is another issue. Due diligence would have highlighted to the company a number of years ago that it could not cope with a significant weather incident. It should have made its investment plans earlier.

Finally, I have a couple of questions for the Minister. First, in a debate on 28 January, the Minister of State, Department for Transport, the right hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) said:

At the end of this debate, we need to know what that means, the time scale involved and what options are being considered. Do they include the possibility of curtailing the franchise by 2012? We also need to know if the remedial plan option, for example, is being considered. Finally, if the Government are considering withdrawing the franchise from FCC, what are the trigger points that would initiate that process?

To conclude, I will quote another FCC commuter:

At the end of this debate, I hope that the Minister will tell us whether he agrees with that commuter and, if he does not agree, what does he propose doing as an alternative to removing the franchise from FCC?

3.37 pm

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): It is a great pleasure to contribute to this debate today, as it was to contribute to a debate on rail in Westminster Hall yesterday, because I have a dual role in relation to rail; I am both a frustrated constituency MP and the shadow Minister with responsibility for my party in this area.

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A number of my colleagues have eloquently described a number of problems that they have experienced with First Capital Connect. So far, most of them have come from the northern end of the FCC lines, but a number of the commuters on the Wimbledon loop have experienced exactly the same problems with the poor service from November onwards and indeed with the total shutdown of the service due to snow.

Therefore, I want to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on securing this very timely debate. The number of Members who have made time today to make either speeches or interventions in this debate is a tribute to her. That is a sign of how important this issue is to our constituents. It is to her credit that she has been such a consistent defender of her constituents.

We have had some very thoughtful speeches and interventions. I want to pick up on the point that was made earlier, by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) in an intervention and by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) in her contribution to the debate, about the poor information that was being provided by FCC. FCC should seek to address that immediately. It can be rectified easily. It is a differentiating factor between its service and the services that are provided elsewhere.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire and my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) both made the point that it is all very well for FCC to offer some compensation, but we are talking about the inconvenience suffered by commuters and the need to get to a service that is regular and reliable, which our constituents have a right to expect. That is why this has been such an important debate.

Several hon. Members have said that today they received e-mails from First Capital Connect stating that the daily public performance measurement has dropped below 90 per cent. only once since 18 January. However, we are here to discuss the unacceptable standard over the past few months, not the fact that FCC has returned to an almost acceptable one.

Whichever way we look at it, there are three protagonists in this sorry debacle, but it is the travelling public who have been forced to live at the will and whim of the incidents. Although the drivers' actions were not technically a strike, it is hard to believe that they were not motivated by the pay talks under way, and passengers became the victims of irresponsible game-playing. The walk-outs on previously rostered agreements hurt the travelling public.

The question for many people-I think that the Minister will want to answer this-is whether it is responsible to let franchises, knowing that those franchises rely on the rostering of overtime and that there is all too often no provision in the franchise to cover Sundays. That is certainly true of FCC, and it is true of others.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Chris Mole): I assure the hon. Gentleman that the franchises are let on the basis that the Government expect the output specified in the franchise to be delivered by whatever means, not on the basis of what rostering might be proposed by the franchisee.

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Stephen Hammond: The Minister is admitting to everybody that he accepts that the Government are prepared to let franchises without full coverage of driver services. I was somewhat surprised when he confirmed to me that the majority of train operating companies rely on rest days and overtime working to deliver not exceptional services but normal services.

Chris Mole: The hon. Gentleman said that he believes that a majority of train companies rely on rest day rostering. How many train companies out of the total number do so?

Stephen Hammond: If the Minister cares to write to me again to clarify his letter, I will be able to answer that question. It was his own letter that told me that it was a majority of companies. If he wishes to clarify the letter, I will be delighted to receive that clarification.

Understandably, there has been clamour for First Capital Connect to be stripped of its franchise. The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) started to get to the nub of the matter. Stripping a franchise might be possible if the franchisee has broken its franchise arrangements. Will the Minister tell us whether FCC, even under the revised timetable, has come close to incurring performance improvement plans, breach or default? If it had not agreed the revised timetable, would its lack of performance have led to such measures? There are important questions about the performance of the franchise.

The other thing that a lot of our constituents rightly want to know is why they face a poorer service even though the problems that they have experienced have not shown up as particularly bad performance in FCC's initial numbers, due to force majeure and the revised timetable. Will the Minister indicate exactly what criteria he uses for force majeure and what provisions allow a TOC to introduce a revised timetable? Although events outside the company's control were involved, making the necessity of such measures understandable, surely the point is that although the revised timetable is in place, our constituents are not getting the service that they expect and should therefore be entitled to compensation anyway. Will he address that point? What consideration have the Government given it?

I am conscious of the time, and I know that Ms Walley wants to call the Minister at a quarter to 4, but I have a couple of questions about the First Capital Connect fleet. Yesterday I asked the Minister some detailed questions about the First Thameslink fleet and he kindly agreed to write to me, but today I have what I hope are some slightly easier questions.

It is clear that First Capital Connect has operated under a considerable burden, partly because of delays in the delivery of rolling stock. Hon. Members have rightly described some of the rolling stock cascaded to FCC as being of lower maintenance provision than previously. Does the Minister accept that the cascade of poorer rolling stock has played a huge part? If the Government had met their side of the bargain and delivered to First Capital Connect 32 non-defective trains, as opposed to the 32 that they actually delivered, what consequences do they believe that would have had during the bad weather?

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