Southern and Thameslink should be stripped of their rail franchise unless they show ‘immediate improvement’, one Sussex MP has demanded.
Arundel and South Downs MP Nick Herbert said passengers had ‘reached the end of their tether’ with rail companies, and MPs were ‘unwilling to hear any more excuses or false promises that the service will get better’.
Southern, Thameslink and Network Rail agreed to a performance improvement plan a year ago after MPs met the Government’s rail minister to demand action.
Performance had been improving under the plan but the latest updates reveal a marked deterioration over the past month, with punctuality now significantly worse than when the plan started.
Mr Herbert said that earlier this year 80 per cent of planned Thameslink and Southern services were less than five minutes late at their final destination. The companies set this as their baseline for improvements, but in October and November punctuality had actually fallen to under 74 per cent.
After Southern announced further disruption to its services today (Monday December 21) due to shortage of train crew, Mr Herbert said: “The rail companies assured us that this improvement plan would deliver, and that performance would steadily improve, but the last few weeks have seen the service get even worse.
“We are well aware of factors like the improvements at London Bridge, old infrastructure and rising passenger numbers, but these do not absolve the companies for this systematically poor performance.
“Passengers have reached the end of their tether, and frankly MPs are unwilling to hear any more excuses or false promises that the service will get better.
“Unless there is a genuine immediate improvement then more drastic action must be taken, right up to the option of stripping Southern and Thameslink of their franchise.”
Mr Herbert said that the independent Office for Rail and Road, the regulator for the railway industry, should also take further action against Network Rail which he said ‘bore an equal share of the responsibility for the situation’.
Rail minister Claire Perry has told Mid Sussex MP Sir Nicholas Soames that she will convene a summit with the rail companies early in the New Year to discuss the concerns of local MPs and to demand improvements.
Mr Herbert has not been alone in his criticism of Southern. Last week Lewes MP Maria Caulfield suggested on Twitter it was ‘almost quicker to fly to space station by rocket than get home to Lewes by train’.
Meanwhile Horsham MP Jeremy Quin said that last week had been ‘dreadful week on the railways’ and added: “It is deeply disappointing that notwithstanding heavy investment we continue to have infrastructure problems. It is more frustrating that delays have also resulted from the unavailability of drivers.”
A statement issued by Southern last week to Mr Quin said: “Performance on the Southern route this week has been particularly challenging and disruptive for passengers. There have been a series of incidents which affected each day.
“The infrastructure has suffered from numerous problems including signalling failures at Norwood, Bognor and London Bridge; a power supply failure at Littlehaven and a major signalling failure at Purley. These events went on for extended periods of time and meant that the service took some time to recover, particularly the incident at Purley on Wednesday.
“We have also had some unusually disruptive fleet failures which affected the service this week including a train at Coulsdon with door problems and a Horsham bound service with power issues. Yesterday (Thursday) we had a broken down train at Clapham Junction, as well as a fatality on the Tonbridge line and a trespass incident at Streatham.
“There have also been some issues this week with temporary shortages of available crew with the start of the holiday season. We are, however, running the UK’s biggest driver recruitment and training programme to increase the number of drivers in the longer term.
“On passenger information, our control team has been working hard this week with very fast moving, changing events across our network. The aim was to provide the latest information as soon as possible but inevitably this takes some time to filter through to all information channels. We are working on modernising and improving how we provide real time information to passengers as we know this is a particular issue for our customers.
“Against a background of an already very busy network, with little margin for delay under normal circumstances whilst London Bridge station is being rebuilt, these issues made for some frustrating and long journeys this week, and we apologise to our passengers for this.
“For journeys delayed by over 30 minutes, compensation is available under Delay Repay - www.southernrailway.com/delayrepay.”
Over the last few days Sussex MPs have received multiple complaints from constituents who have expressed deep frustration at repeated train cancellations and delays.
In July Nick Herbert called a Commons debate on Southern’s performance and said that the company should ‘hang its head in shame’ after being rated the worst performing train company in the country by passengers.
Speaking in January Prime Minister David Cameron said that if operators continued to fail they ‘should be at risk of losing their franchise’.
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