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Chris Gibb Report: Improvements to Southern Railway
Debate between Mr Gavin Shuker and Jeremy Quin
Tuesday 04 July 2017

(2 years, 6 months ago)

Read Full debate
Commons Chamber
Department for Transport
Jeremy Quin Portrait Jeremy Quin - Hansard
4 Jul 2017, 5:37 p.m.

I thank my hon. Friend. She really has to ask the unions why they are still on strike. My understanding is that it is because of the 2.75% of the 70% of trains that traditionally had a second person on board. I am convinced that her constituents and my constituents would rather that those trains continue to run. I look forward to 100% coverage, but the 97.25% figure and the recruitment shows that GTR is serious about ensuring that there is a second professional on board. Passengers have had enough. It is high time that the unions ended their action.

As the Secretary of State made clear, however, it would belittle the report to suggest that it focuses only on industrial action. It is far broader and more useful than that. What runs through the report is the difficulty of operating trains on a hugely well used and complex service. As the report states, Southern is

“simultaneously running at absolute capacity at peak times, and undergoing a period of dramatic… change”.

The introduction of class 700s, new depots at Three Bridges and Hornsey, a doubling of Thameslink peak-hour trains to 24 through central London, and major infrastructure enhancements at London Bridge are all good improvements for passengers. They are vital to maintain a railway that has seen a massive increase in passenger numbers. As the report makes clear, Southern has been under strain with

“unreliable infrastructure, a timetable that is very tight and with overcrowded peak services”.

In some ways, the railways are a victim of success. In the days of British Rail, which the Opposition still seem to recall so fondly, the network was declining and, as Gibb points out, was relatively lightly used. In the 20 years since privatisation, passenger numbers have grown such that, on Southern’s routes, more passengers are now travelling than at any time in the past 90 years. The emphasis that Gibb places on collaborative working is welcome, as are the practical steps that he recommends to ensure that that takes place, many of which have already been implemented. I am pleased that on receipt of the report back in January the Government immediately committed £300 million to meet the basic infrastructure requirements that were set out. It is good to hear the Department’s strong commitment to ensuring that the region secures the investment it requires.

The report also has lessons for the operator, and Gibb makes clear the complexity of the Southern operator’s task. There are few, and I am certainly not among them, who view the scale of the franchise as optimal. However, for those who believe that firing the operator would be a simple gain, Gibb argues persuasively that such an approach is naive. Twice operators have been replaced by Government emergency provision, as the shadow Minister said, and the report implies that this comes at greater cost. In both cases, the routes were running at steady state; Southern is going through a period of substantial change. The implication of the report is that firing the operator would be, at best, risky, and at worst could lead to chaotic failure.

However, it appears to me that the operator, in bidding for the franchise, was too optimistic about what it might be able to achieve by crewing via diagramming software. The system can be highly efficient when it works well, and in theory it should work brilliantly, but that requires perfect operating conditions, which are not what Network Rail delivers. I am therefore delighted by the Secretary of State’s commitment to the additional drivers who are being trained and coming online, and I am pleased that there are now more on-board staff than at the start of this process. They will increase resilience and reduce dependence on overtime. He is determined to ensure that we have a modern, resilient railway that delivers for its passengers. I congratulate him on commissioning this report, and I thank Mr Gibb for his work.

Mr Gavin Shuker (Luton South) (Lab/Co-op) Hansard
4 Jul 2017, 5:41 p.m.

I appear to have a very good hit rate with you so far, Madam Deputy Speaker. You have called me two days in a row.

I have seen great men and women stand at the Dispatch Box and take responsibility for things that were often beyond their control but within their Department’s remit. If we are honest, today’s debate has proceeded along some well-worn tramlines. Conservative Members have said that the entire problem with Southern rail is caused by industrial action, and Opposition Members have tried to acknowledge that the systemic failure has wider implications. This debate was set up to fail from its opening remarks. It is important to be aware that it is not a bug within the system that the Secretary of State chooses not to take responsibility for the situation; it is a feature.

I do not have to declare an interest other than that I commute daily to this place on Govia Thameslink, and the everyday experiences of my constituents, which in some cases mirror my own, are at the forefront of my mind. The House has to take responsibility for the very real failings of the system as a whole and plot a course out of them, and I will explain why that is important right now.

How did we get here? Gibb identifies three or four major factors. First, there is no single system operator. With particular regard to Southern, he says:

“The rushed 1990s privatisation...failed to understand the critical needs of the system”.

We see that in the fragmentation across the planning and the response to critical failures. I have had conversations with the train operating companies, which revealed that they could perhaps better manage disruption if they put their own staff in the control room—so that other train operators, which are already in the control room, do not put their services in front. That is a pretty basic failing, but it underlines the fact that there is not a single point of accountability for this failure.