Lots of constituents have contacted me about the woeful service currently being provided by Govia Thameslink who operate the Thameslink, Southern & Great Northern franchise.
Let me start by reassuring you that I understand just how bad things are. Not only have I received hundreds of emails and tweets from constituents, I often use the service myself. I have met regularly with Govia, Network Rail (who are responsible for the track and signalling on which Govia’s trains run) and Ministers - most recently with both the Secretary of State for Transport and the Chief Executive of Govia yesterday - to:
a) ensure they understand just how angry my constituents are; and
b) ensure I understand what’s causing the problem and what can be done to solve it.
What’s causing the problem?
Govia’s performance has been poor from the moment they took over the franchise. There are three main reasons for this:
• they inherited too few drivers from the previous operators;
• the trains they inherited are old and prone to breaking down; and
• the track and signalling on which they run services (which as noted above is the responsibility of Network Rail) is also old and prone to failing.
In terms of where the balance of the blame lies for the poor service we are experiencing, in the year up to 30th April 2016 38% of delays on the Southern section of the franchise were Govia’s fault and 59% were Network Rail’s fault.
This Government is investing in our railway to try to deal with the third problem. It is currently spending £6,500 million upgrading the Thameslink route and redeveloping London Bridge station (see here for more details). When these works are complete, they will increase capacity and improve reliability between East Croydon and London Bridge, but at the moment they are making things worse not better because some track on the approaches to London Bridge has had to be closed while the work is being done. That means that when something goes wrong - a train breaks down or there’s a signalling fault - it takes much longer to recover the timetable because there’s much less spare capacity onto which to divert services.
In the first four months of this year, Govia Thameslink and Network Rail began to make some progress in improving the reliability of services as the table below shows:
%age of trains on Southern section of the franchise arriving on time
But in the last few weeks, we have seen an industrial dispute about driver-only trains. 40% of Govia trains on the Southern section of the franchise already use this method of operation. Govia want to increase this because it will reduce cancellations (at the moment, if a train is working and its driver turns up on time but the conductor does not, the train has to be cancelled; if you have a driver-only train you have one less thing that can lead to the service being cancelled). The trade unions oppose any extension of driver-only operation, despite the fact that Govia have promised that everyone who wants a job will still have one, nobody will lose any pay and at least as many trains which have a second person on board today will do so in future.
There have been two strikes with a third one planned for 21st June and worse Govia are now seeing a steep rise in staff reporting sick or refusing to work overtime (the working practices in the industry are out of the ark: Govia have no ability to make anyone work on a Sunday - they rely on people volunteering to do it). By way of example, in the 32 working days before 25th May, an average of 83 services were cancelled as a result of conductor unavailability compared to just five in the equivalent period before the strikes. As a result, performance has slipped below the very poor levels we saw in the run-up to Christmas with fewer than 70% of trains running on time in the last few weeks.
Several constituents have said to me that Govia are making the problem worse by refusing to allow those who went on strike to work overtime. I have been told by the Chief Executive of Govia that this is categorically untrue. If anyone has evidence of it, please email me at email@example.com.
So to summarise:
• Govia have too few drivers;
• the trains they operate are old and prone to breaking down;
• the track and signalling on which they run, which is the responsibility of Network Rail, is also old and prone to failing;
• the investment the Government is making to improve the infrastructure is making things worse not better in the short term; and
• industrial action and working to rule by the trade unions has undone the progress Govia and Network Rail were making in improving the service.
What’s being done?
Because there are multiple causes of the problem, there is no silver bullet that is going to solve it.
Govia are in the midst of the biggest train driver training programme in British history. There 261 drivers currently being trained, 74 of whom are going to work on the Southern section of the franchise.
They are also bringing new trains into service which will boost capacity and should be more reliable, leading to fewer cancellations.
The Government is investing to improve the infrastructure on the Thameslink route from East Croydon to London Bridge. I am currently working to secure funding for similar improvements on the Brighton Main Line (the route from Brighton through East Croydon to London Victoria) once the Thameslink work is complete.
At the end of this year, the fourth approach track at London Bridge will be reinstated. This will mean that when things go wrong they won’t have such a big knock-on effect. At the end of 2018, the Thameslink upgrade will be complete, at which point Govia will be able to significantly increase capacity to London Bridge.
And Govia are trying to resolve the industrial dispute and address attendance issues.
What else could be done?
The Government could take the franchise away from Govia as some have suggested. However, that wouldn’t address the nearly 60% of delays that are the responsibility of Network Rail nor would it solve the industrial dispute that is the cause of the recent deterioration. When I met the Secretary of State for Transport yesterday, he was very clear that changing the franchise operator would make things even worse, not better.
The Government is committed to improving compensation for passengers when services are delayed and it is looking at breaking up the franchise (which is the biggest in the country), giving Transport for London responsibility for so-called metro services (those from places like Caterham and Tattenham Corner into London Victoria as opposed to the Brighton Mainline). I will continue to press on both these issues.
I am no fan of Govia - their communications with passengers in particular are often appalling. However they did inherit a mess, they are not to blame for the failures of Network Rail and they were improving the service until the recent industrial dispute. Responsibility for the appalling service in the last few weeks lies firmly with the trade unions. I hope MPs of all political persuasions along the route will shortly issue a joint call on them to cancel their planned industrial action, resume working overtime and start thinking about the misery they are inflicting on passengers.
If you would like to meet me in person to discuss this issue, I would be very happy to do so.