The future of rail: Improving the rail passenger experience (House of Commons Transport Select Committee)

Conclusions and recommendations

Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise: what went wrong?

1.We welcome the Department’s acknowledgement that, in hindsight, it was a mistake to amalgamate four existing railway brands into one huge, diverse and highly complex rail franchise delivered via a single operator, on a part of the network undergoing very substantial infrastructure works. The sheer size and complexity of the franchise has seriously hindered effective monitoring and enforcement of the contract. Our current rail franchising inquiry will consider how this came about, and the broader lessons for the structuring of future franchises. (Paragraph 16)

2.The effects on Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern’s (TSGN) passengers of the major infrastructure works entailed in the Thameslink Programme, particularly the redevelopment of London Bridge station, were very substantially underestimated. The greater than anticipated effects have been a key cause of the unacceptably poor service experienced by many of TSGN’s passengers. The planning assumptions supplied to the operator by the DfT were wildly inaccurate, which raises serious questions about the Department’s competence to run an effective franchising programme. We are continuing to examine these broader issues in our current rail franchising inquiry. (Paragraph 22)

3.We recommend that the Department for Transport (DfT) lead a review, in conjunction with Network Rail, the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) and an appropriate passenger group, of the lessons learned for maintaining acceptable levels of passenger service from the planning of the Thameslink Programme. The review should ascertain how the planning assumptions for the franchise were so poorly forecast. The report should set out a clear plan to better anticipate and avoid the unacceptably severe levels of disruption to passenger rail services during future major infrastructure works. We recommend that the review be undertaken as a matter of urgency and report its findings before summer 2017. (Paragraph 23)

4.It is unacceptable that Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) was awarded by far the busiest rail franchise in the UK only to immediately discover that it had insufficient staff to deliver the contracted rail services. This reveals serious inadequacies in the process for handing over a franchise from one franchisee to another. Any potential staffing issues should have been clearly foreseeable. (Paragraph 30)

5.We welcome the Minister’s intention to consider improvements to the processes for handing over rail franchises from one operator to another, ensuring that the new operator has access to the robust information it needs to run an effective service for passengers from day one of its operations. We recommend that the Government set out in its response to this Report its analysis of the problems at handover of the current TSGN franchise and the work it plans to undertake to ensure that these problems are avoided in future franchise handovers, particularly in relation to ensuring appropriate staffing levels at the commencement of operations. We will monitor progress towards improving franchise handover processes in our ongoing inquiry into rail franchising. (Paragraph 31)

6.The rail unions’ opposition to Driver Only Operation (DOO), on both safety and staffing grounds, is long-standing and well known. The industry and Government’s commitment to it from an efficiency perspective has long been equally apparent. Whilst the dispute can ultimately only be resolved through negotiation between GTR and the RMT, given the Department’s unusually direct involvement in the TSGN franchise it should take a greater degree of responsibility for fostering productive negotiations. We therefore urge the new Rail Minister and Secretary of State to engage more actively and substantively with the rail unions’ safety and workforce-related concerns in relation to the expansion of DOO on the TSGN franchise, as a matter of urgency. Whilst the RMT rightly has an interest in ensuring the safety of its members and passengers, responsibility for monitoring the safety of the railway lies with the RSSB and the ORR—both of these organisations have broadly endorsed the safety of DOO. Prior to, and during, the RMT’s industrial action on GTR services over the introduction of DOO, the RMT’s members have continued to perform their functions on DOO trains across parts of the UK without industrial action. Given the official conclusions of the RSSB and the ORR it is of concern that industrial action is continuing over this issue. The failure of GTR and the RMT to agree to a set of circumstances in which a DOO train can be operational is deeply regrettable. We will return to this issue as part of our ongoing “future of rail” inquires. (Paragraph 52)

7.GTR, the RMT and the Government are each to some extent culpable in the current damaging industrial dispute that, in the main, adversely affects passengers. The impact has been catastrophic for passengers and local communities covered by GTR services. We urge GTR, the RMT and the Government to take on board the criticisms and recommendations made in this Report, and each party to consider further compromises to bring this matter to a rapid resolution. It would be unacceptable for any party to instead use sections of this Report to emphasise the shortcomings of another. (Paragraph 53)

8.We are concerned that no official impact assessment has been made of the potential effects of DOO on disabled people’s access to the railway. We recommend the DfT and the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) jointly commission research into the potential effects of DOO on the “turn up and go” accessibility of the railway to disabled people who require assistance getting on and off trains. The Department should draw on this research to issue guidance to train operating companies on the measures that should be taken to mitigate potential detrimental effects on disabled people’s access. It should ensure that actions are taken to guarantee that disabled rail passengers receive the support to which they are entitled. The research should be conducted, and guidance published, before summer 2017. (Paragraph 56)

TSGN—lessons for transparency and accountability

9.The DfT has a duty to hold train operating companies to account for poor performance; passengers expect and deserve this. The answers provided to us by very senior officials in oral evidence, and the Department’s subsequent written submissions, however, give us little confidence that it has a firm grip on the monitoring of GTR’s contractual obligations. (Paragraph 72)

10.Until we recently managed, after several attempts and considerable time and effort, to extract information from the Department, GTR’s contractual performance benchmarks, and data relating to GTR’s performance against them, were entirely opaque. It is completely unacceptable that changes to the contractual benchmarks were not published in an open and transparent way. It is also unacceptable that the data required to scrutinise GTR’s performance against its contractual benchmarks are not made readily available. The Department’s evasive and opaque answers to our questions hindered our inquiry and delayed publication of this Report. (Paragraph 73)

11.The DfT must take urgent action to increase the transparency of GTR’s performance against its contractual obligations. In the interests of open and transparent scrutiny, we recommend that the Department immediately require GTR to publicly report its performance against each of its contractual performance measures in each Reporting Period since the commencement of the current franchise and on an ongoing basis. (Paragraph 74)

12.Industrial action by the RMT since April 2016 has had a substantial exacerbating effect on GTR’s poor performance. GTR claims that unofficial industrial action necessitated the implementation of a revised timetable, which appears to have contributed to GTR exceeding the contractual default level for cancellations. The Department must carefully and thoroughly assess GTR’s claims for force majeure. We accept that assessment of these claims, particularly where they relate to alleged unofficial industrial action, will be complex and painstaking, involving verification of train crew absences and the actions taken by GTR to mitigate the effects on services. It is unacceptable, however, that the process is being delayed by GTR’s tardiness in supplying the information required to support its force majeure claims. It is also unacceptable that the Department does not intend to conclude its assessment of GTR’s force majeure claims until the current industrial dispute is resolved. There seems little prospect of resolution in the short term; the union has recently announced further strike dates up to and including 8 December 2016. It is essential that the Department provide clarity about whether GTR is in default, as a matter of urgency. We therefore recommend the Department expedite its assessments of GTR’s force majeure claims in the three Reporting Periods to 20 August 2016. GTR should be given a deadline by which to supply the necessary information. Given that the Department requires six to eight weeks to process each claim, we recommend it come to a decision on whether GTR is in default by early November 2016. (Paragraph 75)

13.We note the Secretary of State’s recent announcement of a £20 million package of measures, including the appointment of Chris Gibb to lead a new project board to devise a plan to produce a rapid improvement to Southern Railway’s services. Whether a £20 million fund will be sufficient to make a real difference remains to be seen. While the Secretary of State’s intervention might indicate a renewed sense of urgency on the part of the Department, passengers may view it as “too little, too late”, given that they have been experiencing unacceptably poor service for more than a year. We look forward to seeing the new project board’s plan, and hope that it can swiftly bring about the positive change that passengers deserve. We will continue to closely scrutinise progress. (Paragraph 80)

14.We ask that the Department, in response to this Report, set out in detail: how the recently announced £20 million will be allocated to address the problems on Southern Railway; whether the £20 million is new, additional funding, or from what part of the Department’s budget it has been reallocated; the precise outputs it expects the £20 million to achieve; and a more precise timetable for the publication of the project board’s plan and the implementation of its actions. This money should ultimately be recovered from the operator. (Paragraph 81)

15.Passengers on the TSGN network deserve a much more reliable service. If GTR is in default, it is incumbent on the Department to take the franchise back in house and then to find one or more operators that can improve the situation. It is simply not credible for the DfT to continue to claim that “no other operator” could improve the situation; if it is the case, it is a consequence of the structuring of the franchise, for which the Department is ultimately accountable. If GTR is shown to be in default, the Department must take the opportunity to find a way of delivering more reliable services for passengers. The DfT must have a workable enforcement policy for all rail franchises. The DfT must have a workable enforcement policy for all rail franchises. There must be a clear and credible threat to restructure or terminate GTR’s franchise agreement should it default on its contractual obligations. We recommend that the DfT respond to this report with a clear statement of its capability to step in as operator of last resort, as it is legally obliged to do in the event of default. We recommend the Department work up plans for this contingency, which would enable it to break up the franchise and transfer some or all operations to one or more other operators. The Department should, for example, be working with Transport for London (TfL) to develop plans, in the event of default, for the transfer of Southern’s suburban rail services to TfL before the scheduled end of GTR’s agreement in 2021. (Paragraph 82)

16.Given the scale and prolonged nature of disruption on parts of the TSGN franchise, it is unacceptable that a standard delay/repay scheme, in which the onus is on the passenger to make individual claims each time they are delayed, continues to apply. Alternative arrangements should have been made as soon as it became clear that passengers were going to experience a prolonged period of severe disruption. The then Prime Minister’s commitment, given in June 2016, to an enhanced compensation package was therefore welcome, if somewhat belated, but we are concerned that no such package has yet been announced. We recommend that the Government immediately put in place an automatic compensation scheme, in which TSGN’s passengers are refunded directly, without the necessity to make a claim. (Paragraph 88)

17.The Government’s recent decision not to extend the exemption for mainline rail services from the Consumer Rights Act 2015 is welcome. We intend to explore the implications of this decision in more detail, alongside steps being taken to strengthen TOCs’ delay-repay compensation schemes, later in this Parliament. (Paragraph 89)

Passenger satisfaction and TOC performance measures

18.The National Rail Passenger Survey (NRPS) is long-established and methodologically sound, but it could and should be improved to more accurately reflect the everyday experience of passengers. We therefore welcome the proposed approach to be tested in relation to the new Greater Anglia franchise, which we intend to further scrutinise in our broader inquiry into franchising. (Paragraph 102)

19.The GB-wide NRPS’s principal weakness is that it is a relatively narrow “snapshot”, carried out in two tranches per year, of passengers’ satisfaction with a particular journey. Steps should be taken to address this, while maintaining the NRPS’s key strength—provision of reliable time-series data by which to identify trends and compare TOC performance, disaggregated by a number of logical categories. We recommend that the GB-wide NRPS be carried out at least quarterly, and that the DfT fund Transport Focus to do this. We further recommend that Transport Focus take careful steps to broaden the NRPS’s sample, including by piloting the use of online surveys and surveying the views of non-users of rail travel, including those who were unable to board a train due to overcrowding. (Paragraph 103)

20.The current Public Performance Measure (PPM) does not reflect the real passenger experience, and produces perverse incentives—most obviously, missing out intermediate stops to make up time in reaching the train’s destination—that often work against the interests of many passengers. This is unacceptable and must stop. (Paragraph 107)

21.We recommend PPM be abandoned as the headline measure of TOC performance, and the DfT work with Network Rail and Transport Focus to establish updated “right-time” measures, which take account of punctuality at all stops on a train’s journey. We recommend that a replacement for PPM be implemented by summer 2017. (Paragraph 108)

22.Persistently high levels of overcrowding on particular services on some parts of the rail network are a concern for many passengers. The current official measure of overcrowding, the DfT’s percentage of passengers in excess of capacity (PiXC) statistics, illustrates the problem only in broad average terms, in 11 city regions. In addition, the DfT identifies the “top ten” most overcrowded individual train services. There is a very strong case for more clearly identifying, and taking action to alleviate, substantial overcrowding on specific services across the network. We recommend the DfT review and redesign its PiXC statistics, with a view to more clearly identifying particular train services operating at substantially over capacity. The Department should draw on these statistics to develop a more coherent strategy for tackling overcrowding, including by incentivising TOCs, through franchise agreements, to alleviate the worst examples of persistent overcrowding on particular services across the rail network. (Paragraph 112)

Simpler, more transparent and fairer ticketing

23.Unfairness, complexity and a lack of transparency in the rail ticketing system have been apparent for at least a decade. The incremental progress towards addressing these problems has been far too slow. We agree with the Minister that “passengers deserve better”. The time has come for a more rigorous and coordinated approach, to ensure change across the network. The time has come for a more rigorous and coordinated approach, to ensure change across the network. The Department and the Office of Rail and Road must more rigorously use their respective franchising and regulatory powers, and work together to address:

  • use of incomprehensible jargon in relation to rail tickets, including implementation of clear and consistent terminology in relation to ticketing across the rail network;
  • the availability of cheaper “split-ticketing” options only to those passengers who are “in the know” or prepared to undertake onerous research; and
  • ticket vending machines that are confusing and do not always offer the best value fares.

We recommend that the Department and the ORR publish a joint strategy to address each of these problems, or take enforcement action against TOCs who fail to comply with relevant codes of practice, rail licence conditions, franchise agreements or consumer law. We recommend that the joint strategy be published by April 2017, and that it include a clear timetable for full implementation across the rail network. (Paragraph 125)

24.There has been progress on smart-ticketing, with a number of TOCs introducing their own systems, but we are concerned at the lack to date of a coordinated, industry-wide solution. We therefore welcome the Rail Delivery Group’s (RDG) announcement of a network-wide smart-ticketing plan. We recommend the RDG immediately publish details of its smart-ticketing plan, including a clear timetable for delivery. This must not be further postponed; we expect to see an implementation timetable for which TOCs can be held publicly to account. (Paragraph 129)

25.In many cases, part-time rail commuters are paying the same fare as those travelling to work by rail five days a week; they deserve a fairer deal. We support the Government’s manifesto commitment to the introduction of part-time season tickets, but are concerned that progress towards implementation across the rail network has been slow. (Paragraph 134)

26.Given the relatively small operating margins in the sector, and the likely revenue effects of the introduction of part-time season tickets on some parts of the network, the Government’s proposed investment of £138 million from 2018 is unlikely to be sufficient to incentivise all TOCs to introduce part-time season tickets before the end of this Parliament. Requiring TOCs to introduce fairer, flexible ticketing as part of their franchising agreements is likely to be more effective, but cannot be fully implemented until all current agreements are re-let—this will not be before the mid-2020s. We recommend that the DfT produce an analysis of the likely revenue effects of the introduction of part-time season tickets across the English the rail network, broken down by each franchise area. It should do this before spring 2017. Drawing on this work, it should proceed to focus available funding on franchises where the effects will be greatest and expediting progress in this important area. (Paragraph 135)

27.The rail sector’s apparent inability to get its house in order in relation to rail ticketing raises fundamental questions around the governance and financing of the railway. It is not clear that the right structures are in place to facilitate the integration between TOCs that will be required to implement network-wide smart-ticketing. The longstanding problems of opacity and unfairness in ticketing raise questions around the adequacy of governance and regulatory structures, and consumer protections. We intend to return to these questions in a forthcoming inquiry into the governance and financing of the railway, as part of our continuing “future of rail” series. (Paragraph 136)

Better information for passengers and staff

28.While it is important to ensure that face-to-face help from railway staff is available to those passengers who require it, websites and apps are an increasingly important channel of information. A number of TOCs’ websites and apps are poorly designed and difficult for passengers to use. We therefore welcome ATOC/RDG’s commitment, as part of its ongoing work to improve the passenger experience, to promote a level of consistency and minimum set of standards across all TOCs’ websites and apps. We recommend that ATOC/RDG publish a detailed plan for how it intends to take this work forward, including clear timescales for action, to facilitate our continued scrutiny of this area. (Paragraph 142)

29.National Rail Enquiries (NRE) has lagged behind other transport information websites and apps in terms of its design, functionality and effective use of Network Rail’s open data. We recommend ATOC/RDG publish, before the end of 2016, a clear plan, with specific timescales for action, for improvements to NRE including: more reliable and informative information about delays and disruption; more consistent provision of platform numbers from which trains are due to depart; and information about onward travel on other modes, drawing on and replicating the functionality of externally produced, multi-modal transport apps. (Paragraph 146)

30.The benefits of more extensive and reliable Wi-Fi on the railways are manifold, including: more enjoyable journeys for leisure passengers; more productive use of journey time by business passengers; and more reliable and up-to-date information for passengers and train company staff, with the potential to bring about a transformative improvement in the provision of information during disruption. We welcome the DfT’s commissioning of trials to identify the best solutions. The sector now needs a clear plan for investment in this area. We recommend that the DfT, Network Rail and ATOC/RDG work collaboratively to produce a strategic plan for the implementation of extensive and reliable Wi-Fi across the rail network. We recommend that the Department publish such a plan by summer 2017. (Paragraph 153)

Reproduced under Open Government Licence(OGL)

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