MPs: Southern rail franchise a ‘multi-faceted shambles’

Southern service
Southern service

The operation of the Southern and Thameslink franchise has been a ‘multi-faceted shambles causing untold misery for passengers’, according to a Parliamentary committee.

Trains run by Govia Thameslink Railway, which runs services across Sussex and beyond, were repeatedly disrupted and cancelled from late 2015 through to mid-2017.

The company has been locked in a bitter dispute with the RMT union for the past two years over the further extension of driver-only operation on the Southern network.

The Public Accounts Committee has criticised the Government’s management of both the GTR and East Coast franchises in a report released today (Friday April 27).

It outlines a ‘catalogue of failures’ by the Department for Transport (DfT), GTR and Network Rail, while the issues identified and the small pool of bidders meant the franchise model is ‘broken’.

In response the DfT expressed disappointment the committee had produced an ‘imbalanced report that fails to grasp the complexity of the situation’.

Meanwhile GTR said it had been making good progress to improve reliability, while a new timetable would transform services.

The report described how the DfT was too ambitious about what could be achieved, overlooked the poor condition of the rail network, was ambivalent about the risk of industrial action and neglected to engage constructively with rail unions.

The Government department failed to see or chose not to see a ‘perfect storm’ of an ambitious upgrade programme coupled with plans to increase driver controlled operation of trains, the committee found.

While there has been some improvement recently including signs Network Rail and GTR are working together more effectively, the backbench MPs ‘remain sceptical’ this will address ‘serious and deep-rooted problems’.

Meg Hillier, chair of the committee, said: “The operation of the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise has been a multi-faceted shambles causing untold misery for passengers.

“Meanwhile, the East Coast franchise has failed for a third time because of wildly inaccurate passenger growth forecasts.

“In both cases the Government appears to have seen its task as simply to contract out the service, with wholly inadequate consideration given to passengers’ best interests and behaviour.

“This imbalance cannot continue. The franchising model is broken and passengers are paying the price.”

She suggested GTR’s new timetable, due to come into effect on May 20, would be a ‘critical test for the operator and we will be watching closely’.

A DFT spokesman said: “It is disappointing to see the committee has produced such an imbalanced report that fails to grasp the complexity of the situation, including failing to challenge inaccurate claims from the RMT.

“It also fails to understand that department expressly created the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise to deliver the Thameslink Programme – a once-in-a-generation infrastructure upgrade to revolutionise North-South journeys through London for millions of passengers. New Thameslink trains are already in service and are transforming performance for customers.

“The delay and disruption Southern passengers experienced due to strike action in 2016 was unacceptable, but services have improved dramatically and a brand new programme will begin next month bringing further improvements to their journeys.

“Our franchising model already puts passengers and taxpayers first and has doubled the number of passengers using trains since privatisation reversed decades of decline and underinvestment under British Rail.”

A spokesman from GTR added: “GTR was established in 2014 to help deliver a major modernisation programme for the most congested railway in the UK. As the National Audit Office identified in a recent report, we have faced a wide range of difficulties since being formed in 2014. Not least among these was the industrial action which has been the primary cause of service disruption, according to the Gibb report. We regret the impact this has had on passengers.

“We have been making good progress to improve reliability. Southern Railway is a third more reliable compared with 2016 when the effect of industrial action was at its worst, while on Thameslink passenger satisfaction has hit a record high.

“Next month we will transform services with a new timetable creating space for 40,000 more passengers at peak times along with new routes across a wide region. We are more confident than ever that these benefits will be felt by rail travellers for generations to come.”

The DfT told the committee it considered cancelling GTR’s contract in early 2017, but decided against it as the amount of disruption caused by industrial action meant it did not have sufficient legal grounds for termination.

Recommendations in the report include:

• The DfT should ensure priorities and incentives of Network Rail and franchise operators are aligned to serve the passenger

• The DfT should reflect on the lessons about the level of change that can be achieved on any one route. Where it does anticipate change it should ensure the franchise operator has robust risk management plans in place

• The DfT should write to the committee by September to explain how it has reviewed its approach to performance management of rail franchises

• The DfT must take urgent action to improve its understand of what causes changes in passenger demand and use this to model a range of likely outcomes before awarding franchises.