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27 Nov 2001 : Column 234WH

GoVia (South London)

1 pm

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington): I welcome the opportunity for a short debate about GoVia services in south London. I hope that the Minister can respond today to the issues, about which he has received advance notice.

The Minister may be tempted to stray from the subject of today's debate to that of Liberal Democrat spending plans, so I want to put one thing on the record. In a recent debate, the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) asked me how much of the Liberal Democrats' tax increase of 1p in the pound, which we proposed at the general election, was for transport. My response, correctly, was none, because that increase was earmarked for education. However, our spending plans for transport at the general election included the same level of funding as the Government's 10-year transport plan. If the Minister intends to criticise our transport spending plans, he will also be criticising the Government's plans.

The Minister will not have missed the reports in Sunday's and yesterday's papers about the state of transport infrastructure in the United Kingdom. According to a report commissioned by the Government, Britain has the worst transport system in Europe. The most congested roads, the longest commuting times and some of the highest rail fares can be found in the UK, according to the Government's Commission for Integrated Transport. The franchise process was an opportunity under the Labour Government to start to tackle such problems. I want to focus on the transfer of the Connex South Central franchise to GoVia, and whether it is tackling the problems outlined in that report.

The experience has not been entirely happy so far. I want to refer to a letter and two e-mails that I have received in the past couple of days from constituents who were aware that this debate would take place. Mr. Brown said:

Another constituent told me that she used to catch the 7.30 train from Hackbridge to Victoria, which was always crowded, but it has now been cancelled. She said that she dreaded to think what the overcrowding on earlier and later trains would be like. A third constituent who travelled on the 7.33 train from Hackbridge to London Bridge alleged that since GoVia took over the train had not run on time once and some services had been cut out indefinitely.

I am realistic, as my constituents probably are. There was no way in which the service would improve miraculously, or even perceptibly, as soon as GoVia took over. However, people did not expect it to deteriorate to the extent that it apparently has. Many of the services that GoVia was to provide have been removed in a revised timetable that it had to issue, as it hoped to be able to guarantee a particular level of service. That is not a good omen.

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It seems as though the handover process has failed in some respects. I hope that the Minister can say what lessons the Government have learned from this franchise experience, and what changes, if any, they intend to make to the process to ensure that future franchise renewals give passengers what they want.

There are a number of problems with the franchise bidding and renewal processes. First, there is the too-many-cooks syndrome. GoVia was selected in the final stages of the franchise bidding process from a shortlist of two companies—Connex and GoVia. One must question whether a real choice was possible with only those two companies bidding. However, at the end of that process, the Strategic Rail Authority and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions were happy that the contract should be awarded to GoVia, and that GoVia should take over the franchise. The Office of Fair Trading then became involved, and that significantly delayed the process, but it raised no queries. Clearly, during that period, a great deal of confusion was created for GoVia, its staff and commuters, as they expected the handover to take place, but it did not happen. That led to a loss of morale among staff, and probably caused significant problems in retaining the staff within Connex who were going to be taken on by GoVia. Perhaps the Minister, as a result of that delay, has reflected on what can be done to shorten the process and to ensure that all Government Departments are on board with the company shortlisted by the Government, rather than allowing such a delay to occur.

The second problem is the lack of information about the service and the staff that were employed. Clearly, much of that information is commercially confidential, but driver shortages and the need to recruit more maintenance engineers are the two most significant problems that GoVia has reported to me that affect its ability to deliver the new service. What action are the Strategic Rail Authority and the Government taking to ensure that, within the bounds of commercial confidentiality, all parties bidding to take over the franchise are aware of the staffing levels in the organisation that they will succeed, and what maintenance regime applies? Connex assured me that, if GoVia had wanted the information about the maintenance regime, it could have obtained it. That may be true, but it would appear that GoVia did not do so. In future, will the Government ensure that that information is available at the beginning of the process, so that companies bidding for the franchise know where they stand, without having to delve into areas that they did not realise they had to delve into?

That matter is pertinent not only to the franchises but to the public-private partnership for London Underground, which is another transport plan close to the Government's heart. Clearly, if the consortiums involved in that partnership do not know the staffing levels in London Underground, I can guarantee that when they take over the service they will say, "We did not know how many staff there were, so we will not be able to deliver because we are understaffed."

The third problem is that of driver shortages. The Minister may be aware of correspondence from Connex and comment in the press from GoVia about where responsibility for the driver shortage problem lies. In a letter to GoVia, Connex said that when it handed over

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the franchise, South Central was 14 drivers short of establishment. If that was the case, GoVia did not need to implement cuts on the scale that it has. Connex claimed that the service was only 14 drivers short, but GoVia said that it had to rejig the timetable completely.

Jim Dowd (Lewisham, West): Even if the issue of train drivers were clear—and it is not—that does not explain why so many GoVia services, which affect my constituency as much as the hon. Gentleman's, are running short trains and why trains are being reduced from eight to six or four carriages. That is a matter of service, not drivers. Many of my constituents used to write to me saying that the franchise should be taken away from Connex because the service could not get any worse, but I am now inundated with letters from people who say that they were wrong and that the service has got far worse.

Tom Brake : I thank the hon. Gentleman for those helpful comments. The issue was highlighted in an e-mail that I received from a constituent who could not understand why a short service was running during the peak period—it was cancelled, in any case—whereas long trains were running during off-peak periods later in the day. That seemed to her to be a rather illogical approach to providing the right capacity. I shall be interested to hear whether the Minister has had discussions with Connex or GoVia about driver shortages, and when he expects the problem to be resolved and the normal service—I say that hesitantly—to resume.

The new franchise is the fourth problem area. Commercial confidentiality may prevent the Minister from telling us what is happening with the new franchise, although GoVia is the sole company involved in the negotiations, so there cannot be too many such issues. None the less, I should like to know whether GoVia is on track to sign a new franchise deal in 2002, and what guarantees the SRA is seeking from GoVia on levels of investment. It would be useful to have key, tangible indicators that commuters will be able to understand at the end of the new 20-year franchise, if that is what it is to be. For example, how much new rolling stock will have been rolled out?

I must again refer the Minister to an issue that is of great concern to commuters in my area. Which stations will train services from my constituency go to? We have been told that they might go to London Bridge, but not Victoria. Clearly, the majority of commuters would prefer them to go to both. When the SRA gets involved in the negotiations about franchises, will it consider that level of detail, which commuters understand and can use to judge improvements to the service?

The sudden switch from the new extended 20-year franchises that GoVia is negotiating to short extensions to existing franchises has introduced some confusion into the new franchising arrangements. Connex must be spitting, because it sought a three or four-year extension to its franchise a few years ago in the belief that that was the best way to guarantee significant improvements in investment and new rolling stock. It was told that that was not an option, and that the Government were going for the long, 20-year franchises. However, shortly after negotiations started with GoVia on the new extended

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franchise, that approach was no longer taken, and the Government were considering two or three-year extensions to existing franchises.

I want to give the Minister a decent length of time in which to respond, so I shall come to my final point, which is about the impact of Railtrack going into administration on the investment plans of GoVia and other train operating companies. The Minister ran out of time when I raised the subject at column 219WH in a debate on 30 October. Fortunately, he will have longer to respond today.

What assessment was made before Railtrack was put into administration of the impact on the investment plans of GoVia and the other train operating companies? What assessment has been made since? In response to my parliamentary question 9894, the Minister said:

Why did he say that when Metro had reported on 26 October that GoVia had already suspended a £330 million upgrade of track and signalling on lines into Victoria because of uncertainty about the Railtrack plans, and when it had been reported in the Evening Standard's News and City section on 25 October that Connex South East had put

Does he still maintain that there has been no impact, despite what Go Ahead stated in a letter to me on 12 November? It said:

As recently as yesterday, GoVia stated that uncertainty surrounding Railtrack and its future structure was not helping it to progress its work, especially on infrastructure improvements.

Handing over the franchise to GoVia was supposed to launch a renaissance of the railways. Instead, we appear to be slipping back into the dark ages. I hope that the Minister will confirm that lessons have been learned from the GoVia franchise, and that future franchise renewals will be a guarantee of improvements in service.

1.16 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. David Jamieson): I congratulate the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), resplendent in his new hairstyle—it seems to be catching, Miss Widdecombe—on securing the debate. I also thank him for giving me prior notice of some of the questions. It is a pleasure, Miss Widdecombe, to serve under your watchful eye. It is the first time that I have had that pleasure. I recall that you were once a candidate in the constituency that I now represent. Sadly, I was not a candidate there then, but had I been, we could have both lost together.

Jim Dowd : On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. In the days when I used to sit in this Chamber and say nothing, the tradition was that you would be

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addressed as Madam Deputy Speaker, rather than as Miss Widdecombe. If that has been changed, I should be grateful to know.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (in the Chair): I am not a Deputy Speaker. I am afraid that I am plain Miss Widdecombe.

Mr. Jamieson : Thank you, Miss Widdecombe. Having also served as a Whip in this Chamber, I keep up to date on matters of House procedure. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Jim Dowd) is a stickler in such matters, but on this occasion I seem to have the edge on him.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington raised some important points and I shall endeavour to cover as many as I can, as always. He rather spoiled the beginning of the debate, sullying it with a bit of party politics. There is obviously some sensitivity about matters that have been raised in previous debates. We are delighted to hear that the Liberal Democrats' spending plans for transport are equal to the Government's. Perhaps at some future date, when there is more time, he will tell us how they could afford them.

The hon. Gentleman shows a keen interest in rail issues, and we have had an opportunity to debate some of them previously. I shall try today to cover some of those that we have perhaps not dealt with in as much detail as we should have done. The hon. Gentleman's constituency is served by South Central and Thameslink, and as he said, both those franchises are owned by GoVia.

Before I respond on the main issues, it will be helpful to provide an update on the operators' current service provision. As the South Central franchise was transferred from Connex to GoVia only on 26 August, it is still too early to make overall judgments on GoVia's performance. However, there is a driver shortage across the whole network. When the franchise was transferred there was a driver shortage as well as a shortage in depot fitters. Those staffing shortages have led South Central to make a number of cancellations to its services in recent weeks. It takes several months to provide full training for new drivers, and that should not be speeded up at the risk of compromising safety. However, I am informed that there is already an accelerated programme of driver recruitment and training, which I hope will secure drivers in excess of the current establishment by next spring.

The problem of staffing shortages was added to by a deal that was concluded by the previous incumbent, Connex Transport UK, for a 35-hour four-day week for drivers plus an additional four days leave per annum, which came into effect in September. I understand that South Central is seeking to buy back drivers' annual leave by agreement to help alleviate short-term difficulties. I hope that that is helpful in dealing with driver shortages.

As it was clear that a full service timetable could not be met, the Strategic Rail Authority, in discussion with South Central, the London Transport Users Committee and the rail passengers committee for southern England, agreed a revised timetable. That timetable mitigates the effects of unplanned cancellations on passengers by providing a timetable that can be delivered reliably to

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passengers so that they can plan their journeys accordingly. I would be the first to accept that that is hardly satisfactory, but at least there is now a degree of predictability in the services that was previously lacking. The revised timetable took effect from 12 November: it will apply beyond Christmas and may last until Easter next year. The Strategic Rail Authority will closely monitor South Central's progress towards the reintroduction of a full timetable. I am sure that that is good news for the hon. Gentleman's constituents. I expect every effort to be made to restore a full service as soon as possible.

The latest performance statistics published by the Strategic Rail Authority in July show that improvement also needs to be made in the performance of Thameslink services. The figures show that from 27 May to 23 June, 74 per cent. of Thameslink's trains throughout the day arrived on time, with 71.2 per cent. arriving on time during peak periods. Services are deemed punctual if they arrive at their destination within five minutes of the timetable.

The Connex South Central agreement was due to be transferred to GoVia in June. That was not possible as compliance with competition legislation had to be shown before the takeover could happen. The change of control was dependent on the decision of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry on the competition issues involved. As I said earlier, the handover eventually took place on 26 August. South Central Ltd will continue to run the franchise under the terms of the existing agreement until a new franchise agreement is concluded.

The new South Central franchise is a particular interest of the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington. Some issues surrounding it are also important to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West, who takes a great interest in these matters on behalf of his constituents and has written to me copiously on them recently, which I appreciate.

Negotiations between the Strategic Rail Authority and GoVia are continuing towards a new 20-year franchise agreement. There is no fixed timetable for completing those negotiations, but we have made it clear that we want to see more benefits for passengers secured in the near future, so there is every incentive for early resolution.

As I said during the debate secured by the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) on 31 October, a series of major enhancements are planned over the term of the new franchise to boost capacity and improve service frequency and comfort. It is also worth reminding the House that total investment of £1.5 billion is planned by GoVia to improve South Central services. It is too early to say when those new agreements will be made.

I note from the debate secured by the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) that the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington referred to a delay to his journey caused by a slam-door stopping train. There was not time to cover that issue on that occasion. The South Central franchise agreement included a commitment by Connex to replace mark 1 rolling stock by 1 January 2005 as required by Health and Safety Executive regulations. On 26 August, that commitment was passed to GoVia. I am sure the hon.

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Gentleman will be delighted to know that GoVia has subsequently ordered the first 240 new vehicles to replace slam-door mark 1 stock. The new vehicles are due to start entering into service on its South Central franchise next year.

The current Thameslink franchise is not due to run out until April 2004. On 14 September last year, the Strategic Rail Authority announced the eight companies that had successfully met their pre-qualification criteria to allow them to compete for the new Thameslink franchise. Since then, the Secretary of State has announced his new policy statement on franchising, which the hon. Gentleman touched on.

The hon. Gentleman asked what lessons the Government had learned from the franchising process. He may be aware that the Secretary of State has asked the Strategic Rail Authority to concentrate on negotiating improvements for passengers under existing franchises, or to negotiate short two-year extensions, and to make the early replacement of franchises the exception rather than the rule.

That new approach focuses on the key 10-year plan targets, which both parties can afford, and aims to deliver earlier passenger benefits such as improved performance and better rolling stock and passenger facilities. We do not rule out the early replacement of the shorter seven-year franchises, but our approach will be adopted only if benefits cannot be obtained in other ways.

The Strategic Rail Authority has reviewed its franchise replacement programme, and is seeking the Secretary of State's approval for a revised programme that will follow the draft directions and guidance and his policy statement on franchising.

The Strategic Rail Authority has been given the priority of reducing overcrowding and achieving better reliability on commuter services. That can be achieved by providing reliable, extra, new rolling stock, tougher performance targets, extra drivers, spare trains for emergency use and enhanced maintenance cover.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned Railtrack administration. We have touched on those issues in debates in the other Chamber, but I am happy to reinforce them. The placing of Railtrack into railway administration by the High Court should not affect the Strategic Rail Authority's ability to conduct a franchise replacement programme. For some time now, we have envisaged that special purpose vehicles and other such innovative mechanisms could complement the more traditional approach to financing railway enhancement investment projects. In particular, we acknowledge that some projects cannot be undertaken by Railtrack alone because of the risks involved.

A financially robust successor to Railtrack plc will be important to ensure the delivery of replacement franchises. However, while the company is in administration, passenger safety and services will not be affected. We will ensure that the administrator has the funds necessary to maintain the full operation of the rail network.

Benefits such as improvements to rolling stock and to the resilience of train operating companies, which, in turn, will enable better performance, are independent of infrastructure network ownership. When major infrastructure improvements are necessary, the Strategic

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Rail Authority considers that long-term franchise replacement is not the only key delivery mechanism. The programme of long-term franchise replacement has made slower progress than hoped, largely because of Railtrack's inability to deal with infrastructure enhancements on the contractor model, by which it would provide initial capital and be remunerated through access charges after completion of the new asset.

That problem was recognised in the project endeavour agreement between the Government and Railtrack in April, under which Railtrack was to concentrate on operations, maintenance and renewals and co-operate with the Strategic Rail Authority and the Government in devising an alternative framework for the procurement of enhancements.

The method that the Strategic Rail Authority now envisages for enhancement projects is the special purpose vehicle—bespoke joint-venture companies. Those would have been largely separate from Railtrack plc, and we have confirmed that that separate approach will be pursued when the successor to Railtrack is established.

I hope that I have managed to cover the major concerns that were sensibly and rightly raised by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington on behalf of his constituents, many of which are shared by the hon. Member for Lewisham, West. We accept that a lot more needs to be done to improve the railway service across the whole network, not only in south London. I hope that hon. Members will agree that we are taking bold steps to ensure that the framework is in place to ensure that improvements happen. Our 10-year plan provides the investment, and the Strategic Rail Authority will shortly publish its strategic plan that sets out its priorities for enhancement to the network. The newly appointed chairman of the SRA, Richard Bowker, will bring fresh ideas to the industry and will play a key role in delivering a better, safer railway.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising those matters, and for giving me the opportunity to answer some of them in this debate.

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