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Rail Strikes (Southend)

12.59 pm

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): One of the joys of these Westminster Hall debates is that troublesome Back Benchers such as myself can sit on the Front Bench—a pleasure that I have not experienced for at least 21 years. The other piece of good news for the Minister is that I do not hold the Government to blame in any respect for the issue that I am about to raise.

The issue is nevertheless serious and significant, and I hope that the Minister and his Department will take an interest in it and promote a solution. The problem relates to the c2c rail service, which links Shoeburyness near Southend to Fenchurch street station. It is a commuter service that is used to transport about 25,000 people to London every day. Sadly, the service is a shambles this morning, with only about one third of the trains running, due to industrial action by the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, which is holding its third one-day strike. A warning has been given that another such strike will take place on 1 August.

It is terrible when those strikes happen. I have before me a form, which I was handed yesterday in Southend and which contains the amended timetable for the RMT strike. The Minister will see that about one third of trains are running, which means that people are going through misery. The strike is not of train drivers, who are members of ASLEF—the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen—but of guards, who are members of RMT. In most industrial disputes the onus is on both sides to solve the problem, but the circumstances of this case are unusual and their character could justify Government action.

Many local residents use the c2c service. I often use it, and my secretary uses it every day. After privatisation, it was originally called the LTS line. Before privatisation the line was unbelievably bad; its services were so spasmodic that it became known as the misery line. After privatisation there was a dramatic improvement in the service, which may have been due to the work of a wonderful manager called Ken Bird and to the new signalling that dealt with many of the problems, and commuters were delighted.

The new contract holders who ran the service were formerly known as the Prism company, which is now part of the National Express Group. Prism decided that that improvement was not enough and that the line should be made into a magnificent new railway that would be an example to the world. It decided to replace the old rolling stock with wonderful new trains called 357s, which were manufactured by a company based in Derby called the Bombardier group—like all companies nowadays it has a complex name. Both Bombardier and c2c assured us that the new trains would be a wonderful way of travelling, but when they arrived they constantly broke down. The difficulty related to computer software, but that reassured neither the public, whose services were disrupted, nor c2c, which had to bring out the old trains.

We have been trying to sort things out for about 12 months. I met a senior c2c executive for two hours in the Commons last night and he was optimistic—as the company has been for so long—that 46 of the 76 new

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trains would be operational soon. Of course, I hope that his confidence is justified but in the meantime the Railway Travellers' Association and the Rail Passengers' Committee have produced an angry report asking why, given that passengers travelled on the first of the wonderful new trains on 1 August 2000, those trains, of which only a handful are operational, are used only spasmodically on off-peak services. That has created many problems for the travelling public.

I have received many letters from constituents who heard that I was initiating this debate. One such letter, which summarises the problem, came by fax a few minutes before the start of the debate. It is not from one of my constituents, nor even from somebody who lives in Basildon—I see that the hon. Member for Basildon (Angela Smith) is here representing her constituents. The fax outlines the basic problem: the

I could read out to the Minister seven such letters that I received this morning outlining the seriousness of the problem. The Government, either themselves or through their contact with Railtrack, may be able to help in relation to one aspect of this tragedy: lines used to test new trains. It may seem ridiculous, but in Britain we do not have a proper test rail on which new trains can be fully tested. The c2c company and the manufacturers have had to send one of their new trains abroad for testing—not to America, Germany or any of the places where one might expect superb test facilities, but to a country called Czechoslovakia. It is quite a task to transport a Southend train by lorry to that part of eastern Europe, and there may be a case for a test rail in the UK. As the Minister will be aware, the increasing emphasis on public transport means that we will probably have many new trains, and it would be a great idea if we could try them out.

What about today's crisis? As the company was endeavouring to bring in its exciting new trains—some of which were four-carriage, some eight-carriage and some 12-carriage—it decided that it should contact the unions about manning arrangements. After long discussions, the company and RMT came to an agreement that the four and eight-carriage trains would be driver-only with no guard but that, because it was accepted that 12-carriage trains were different, a guard would be provided for them alone. In exchange for that arrangement, which was of course helpful to the company, c2c agreed that there would be no redundancies of existing guards, all of whom would be offered guard duties on the 12-unit trains, or alternative

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jobs. Furthermore, a 4 per cent. pay rise was agreed in addition to the normal pay increases, and the company said that it would endeavour to give more attention to the presence of staff on trains to protect the travelling public from problems or dangers.

As the agreement with RMT had been signed and agreed, the company went ahead with a pretty massive investment programme on the facilities required for driver-only trains. When I asked people at my meeting last night how much the company had spent, they would not tell me but said that it was a lot. It includes cameras and special mirrors at stations that enable the driver to check that everyone has got on and off and that everything is okay for the train to start off again.

However, all of a sudden, after the agreement had been signed and all the investments had been made, RMT stated that things had changed—it had to have guards on all trains and would be initiating strikes to secure its position. In the subsequent strike ballot, fewer than 50 per cent. of RMT members voted in favour of action—nevertheless, that provided the required majority. Ballots are very complicated things, as we in the Conservative party know these days.

The situation is difficult to understand, because driver-only trains are not a unique discovery that is being tried out only in Southend. I have been phoning around, and such systems are operated on several lines—for example, WAGN and Thameslink—with no apparent problems. Moreover, the famous Cullen report did not in any way argue that driver-only trains created safety problems. In fairness, I have not read the report in detail, but that is what I have been told.

Where do we go from here? RMT has never been regarded as one of the troublemaking unions. I have always considered it to be one of the more sensible and responsible unions, although it probably shares my basic sin of being suspicious of change. I hope that the Minister can tell us whether the Government believe that the strike is lawful, bearing in mind that it is in breach of an agreement signed by the union.

I do not want to involve the Government in controversy, but legislation is involved and it would speed up a solution if, first, they could make an assessment and say whether the strike is lawful. Secondly, bearing in mind the hardship suffered by the travelling public and the impact on the use of rail transport, there might be some merit in the Minister seeking a meeting with both parties. Although that might set a precedent inasmuch as he might find that other people want him to become involved in trying to solve other problems, it could be worthwhile in this case. I cannot see what damage would be done because everyone would be on his side. The union is not a bad union consisting of a crowd of wild or difficult people; it is worried about something and that is creating a nightmare for the company.

Although c2c has problems with the travelling public, as all companies do, it seems to consist of reasonable people who have spent a fortune trying to improve the service. Things have gone wrong with the trains, but those people are not a bad crowd. I believe that the travelling public would appreciate the Minister's intervention because they are suffering greatly, not just from today's strike, but from hold-ups and cancellations caused when employees do not work

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overtime. The 7 o'clock train from Southend always seems to be delayed or cancelled, and the 7.30 train, which should be a fast service, becomes a slow one and stops at every station. The amended timetable for today states that

Many people want trains to stop at Upminster and Barking, but today they did not do so. The timetable continued:

West Ham connects with one of the new underground lines, so it is important.

Thirdly, would the Minister feel justified in asking the union to try to resolve the problems without having to inflict so much hardship on the travelling public? We must all try to do something. Let us hope that before long the new trains will be working well and that relations between management and employees will be fully restored.

The vital issue is public transport. The Government want to encourage more people to use trains and to discourage them from using cars, as did the previous Government. I am told that even Mr. Ken Livingstone takes a similar view in London and would like everyone to travel by train. The number of people travelling on the c2c line has increased steadily and in the interests of the general public and the environment we want to encourage that. We do not want to return to the old misery line.

I have probably spoken for too long but I have two minutes left. As someone who uses the line, I know, as does the hon. Member for Basildon, that it used to be terrible. It then improved, but is now becoming bad again. Although the Government are not directly responsible, the Minister could help if he thought it appropriate. The dispute is not between nasty people who are looking for rows; it has arisen because everything seems to have gone wrong. If the Minister thought that something could be done, the travelling public and I would be very grateful.

1.14 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. David Jamieson) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) on securing the debate. During my brief tenure in this job I have appeared often in this Chamber, and the hon. Gentleman is the most distinguished Member to whom I have had the pleasure of replying in a debate. He said that after 21 years he has reappeared, unofficially, on the Front Bench, and I am trying to weigh up whether the developments in the leadership campaign have advanced the possibility of his return to the Front Bench. I look forward, Mrs. Adams, to the day when I can call you Madam Deputy Speaker, but that may be reliant on developments in another part of the House. I, too, note the presence of my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Angela Smith) who has been a forceful representative of people in the area and has vigorously made points to me about the line, for which I am grateful.

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The Government greatly regret the problems that passengers have suffered on all lines in recent months and the further inconvenience currently being experienced by c2c passengers. I share the view of the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East that RMT is a good union, which is well represented. I shall refer to c2c's performance of its contract. It is unfortunate that passengers have been so inconvenienced.

It might be helpful if I briefly explain the background to the dispute. It relates mainly to RMT's concerns about the role of guards on trains and the introduction of more driver-only operation. The rule book lays down safety procedures to be employed in the movement of persons and rolling stock in and around the operational railway. A change to the rule book in October 1999 removed the requirement for guards to protect failed trains and requires them instead to look after passengers.

Railtrack and the train operating companies believe that the change improves rail safety. The Health and Safety Executive had no objection to the change on safety grounds and believes that it helps to clarify the respective roles of drivers and guards in emergencies. However, RMT is worried that that reduces guards' responsibility, adversely affects safety and will lead to more driver-only trains and to job losses for guards. Accordingly, RMT is seeking changes to the rule book to reflect its concerns. In addition, RMT wants train operators to give a commitment not to increase the existing number of driver-only trains.

RMT balloted the 22 operators of trains with guards and proposed industrial action. RMT members voted in favour of industrial action and 24-hour strike dates were set for Monday 25 June and Wednesday 4 July. However, before the first of those dates the dispute was settled with all train operators other than Midland Mainline and c2c. The position of Midland Mainline was subject to a court judgment, which subsequently ruled that the RMT ballot was unlawful. Leave to appeal was not granted so the strike action could not take place on Midland Mainline. RMT agreed before the first strike date that their requested changes to the rule book should first be considered by the relevant groups in Railway Safety, the appropriate body in such cases. It is important to note that, unlike previously, RMT is now represented with other stakeholders on those groups and is able to make a full contribution to the debate. It is for hon. Members to reflect on whether we would be in the present position if it had been involved earlier.

The sticking point relates to the commitment that no more driver-only services should be introduced. All operators, with the exception of c2c, were able to give the commitment sought by RMT as they had no plans to introduce additional driver-only services. However, c2c had always intended to employ driver-only operation on the new rolling stock now being introduced and believed that it had an agreement with RMT to that effect. That is the agreement to which the hon. Gentleman referred. However, RMT does not share that view and there is a difference of opinion between RMT and c2c on the validity of the agreement. The company therefore feels unable to give the commitment that the RMT is asking

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for on driver-only operation until the matter is resolved. The result is industrial action, culminating in a strike today and another planned for Wednesday 1 August.

Although I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's frustration and that of his constituents and others along the line with the apparent impasse, the validity or otherwise of any existing agreement between the RMT and c2c is a matter for the parties involved to resolve and not one on which I or anyone in my Department can rule. It is a contractual arrangement between the two parties, and we have no locus in the matter. Ultimately, it may be for the courts to resolve whether the agreement has any standing.

I am pleased to say that, as the hon. Gentleman points out, some services have run today. However, many services have not run, and there has been considerable inconvenience to people on the line. I note that to mitigate disruption and give passengers the most up-to-date information, emergency timetables were handed out in advance by c2c to passengers at stations and posted on the c2c website, and real-time information is available on passenger information screens at c2c stations. However, I realise that there have been difficult journeys for passengers travelling into the City on strike days. For example, trains are not generally stopping at Barking, Upminster or Ockendon, where alternative, underground links are available into the capital, as the hon. Gentleman said in relation to West Ham. I regret the inconvenience that that creates for passengers travelling from those stations and the increased pressure that results on already busy underground routes in other areas.

The roles of guards and drivers in particular circumstances on the railway are a matter for the safety authorities, the trade unions and the managements of the privatised rail companies. The hon. Gentleman may appreciate that, as the dispute does not involve contractual issues relating to the franchise, there is no direct locus for the Government or the Strategic Rail Authority to intervene.

The latest performance figures published by the SRA, which cover the six months from 15 October to 31 March, show that recently c2c has performed better than nearly all other operators, with 84 per cent. of services arriving on time. Only the Island line surpasses that level of performance. The speed restrictions imposed throughout the network post-Hatfield have not particularly affected c2c, but its performance remains 2 per cent. down compared with the previous year, partly due to difficulties with new rolling stock.

The spring 2001 national passenger survey revealed that 72 per cent. of c2c passengers are satisfied with the service overall, which is the same as the figure for the previous spring. However, only 38 per cent. of passengers believe that c2c offers value for money. That is an 8 per cent. increase on the previous spring, but it is still low. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's constituents were pleased that the standard day return from London to Southend Central was reduced from £12 to £10.60 with the introduction of the May timetable. The seven-day ticket remains £58, the same as a year ago.

The hon. Gentleman referred to some rolling stock problems. I am sure that I need not remind hon. Members that Ministers have made it clear to rolling

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stock manufacturers that late delivery and poor reliability of new stock are unacceptable. Technical problems with c2c's new rolling stock caused widespread disruption and overcrowding, especially on peak services. Faulty electrics and software problems rendered the new trains unreliable and prone to breakdown.

The majority of units could not be introduced by their contractual date and as a result the SRA negotiated a package of passenger benefits with c2c to compensate passengers for the late introduction of the new stock. That included an increase in the order of new units from 44 to 46, and a commitment to procure a second tranche of 26 new four-car trains to be delivered and in service by 30 June 2002, replacing the remaining slam-door stock.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the testing of trains and about them being sent to the Czech Republic. I appreciate that he has feelings about things the other side of the channel. We are aware that the network generally and the train operators and manufacturers have limited capacity to allow the timely testing of new vehicles. The lack of a suitable high-test track makes vehicle testing time consuming and logistically difficult. The SRA is therefore looking at the feasibility of building a new test track in the United Kingdom. We are all mindful that that is important not just for train users, but for British jobs in train manufacturing.

Returning briefly to rolling stock delivery, c2c has a franchise commitment to introduce 45 of the 46 units into passenger service by 31 July 2001, and the remaining units by the end of September 2001 once winter testing has been completed. I am pleased to confirm that c2c is now in the final stages of its fleet acceptance and the introduction should be completed

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on time. The second tranche of class 357 units is in production now. The first units for testing are expected in the next few weeks. The company is confident that it will have the second tranche fully in passenger service by spring 2002. It is clear that there is a lot of work to be done and that will be achieved only if the rail industry works co-operatively to deliver real improvements for passengers right across the network.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether we could set up a meeting. Years ago he probably would have accused us of having beer and sandwiches, but sparkling water and canape"s may be more appropriate these days. The matters that have to be resolved concern the agreement that is said to exist between c2c and RMT. As it is so clear what the difference of opinion is about, it would be inappropriate for us to intervene at the moment, but that does not mean that we will not have considerable concern if the dispute continues, so we hope that it can be resolved soon. The Government must remain impartial, as we have no locus to intervene. Any further industrial action on the national railways would of course be regrettable, and I hope that both sides will make every effort to achieve a quick resolution, exploring all avenues for settling differences so as to avoid further industrial action and inconvenience to passengers.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the matter today; it is of considerable importance to his constituents and to all the people along that line. I thank him for the measured way in which he did so. It is a sign of our changing relationship here that these things are discussed calmly and sensibly, and I am pleased to have responded to him. If he feels that there are any matters that I have not considered in detail and if the dispute is on-going, I and my officials will be pleased to meet him to discuss the matter further.

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