Southern ‘nightmare’ could have been avoided by Government

Southern train
Southern train

The ‘nightmare’ experienced by Southern train passengers over the last three years could have been avoided by the Government, according to a new report from a Parliamentary body.

The National Audit Office (NAO), which scrutinises public spending, found that to date the Govia Thameslink Railway franchise, beset by problems since late 2015 including repeated walkouts by staff, has not delivered value for money.

The ‘damning’ NAO report explained that while it would have been ‘difficult to foresee industrial action on this scale’ the Department for Transport (DfT) had not fully evaluated the possible effects of strikes as a result of GTR extending driver-only operation on Southern services.

Nor did it seek ‘sufficient assurance’ that GTR would have enough train drivers when it took over the franchise, with more than a third of cancellations down to a lack of available drivers and train crew.

Meanwhile neither the DfT nor Network Rail had a good understanding of the underlying condition of the existing network when the requirements for the franchise where set.

In response union bosses called for ‘heads to roll’ and suggested the rail operator and Government had ‘promised a timetable they both knew they could never deliver’.

Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, said “Over the last three years long-suffering passengers on the Thameslink franchise have experienced the worst performance on the rail network.

“Some of the problems could have been avoided if the Department had taken more care to consider passengers in its design of the franchise.”

Between September 2014 and August 2017 a total of £3.6bn of fare revenue has been received by the Government, with franchise payments of £2.8bn made to GTR, netting the balance of £760m for the taxpayer.

In response a spokesman for the DfT said: “The NAO report confirms that the primary cause of delays and cancellations to passengers has been lack of available staff, which is a direct result of strike action.

“It is time for the RMT to call off its needless strike action.

“The TSGN franchise was brought together to deliver the Thameslink Programme which will transform North-South journeys through London this year. New trains will run every 2-3 minutes through central London, a new rail hub will connect to Crossrail at Farringdon, and a new station opened last week at London Bridge.

“Clearly the disruption passengers have experienced is unacceptable but the NAO recognises that service has improved over the last 12 months.

“The Government has taken a number of steps to ensure this improvement, including the provision of an additional £300 million to improve reliability on the Brighton Mainline. We expect service improvements to continue as the Thameslink programme is completed.”

Meanwhile Charles Horton, chief executive of GTR, added: “The Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern (TSGN) franchise is making good progress in delivering a major upgrade programme to improve reliability and boost capacity on the most congested part of the UK rail network, a complex project whose success is critical to the national economy.

“As part of this drive to modernise, we are pioneering improvements in trains and technology, and have updated practices for train drivers and crew that other operators are only now adopting.

“Passengers will increasingly see the benefits of this modernisation project in terms of reliability, punctuality and new journey options, delivered in conjunction with the Government’s Thameslink Programme. We are glad that the National Audit Office has recognised these passenger benefits and that they forecast Thameslink has a realistic chance of delivering value for money.

“TSGN is the UK’s largest franchise – carrying almost a million passengers a day – and the report identifies numerous root causes for the challenges it has faced since its formation in 2014. These difficulties have sometimes been greater than expected and we regret the disruption caused to our passengers.

“It is only right that a franchise of TSGN’s unprecedented scale and ambition receives scrutiny, and I am more confident than ever that its trailblazing achievements will be felt by rail travellers for generations to come.”

The GTR franchise is set to expire in 2021, with ministers indicating it would then be split up, but calls have been made for this to happen sooner.

Henry Smith, Tory MP for Crawley, said: “Along with unions, ASLEF and RMT, the train operator of Southern Railway and Thameslink have failed passengers for far too long. Irresponsible union actions must stop and the GTR franchise ended.”

Keith Taylor, the Green MEP for the South East and a member of the European Parliament’s Transport Committee, added: “This damning report highlights the Southern Rail failures commuters in the South East know only too well.

“It’s yet another reminder that the privatisation of the Southern route has been an abject failure and a nightmare for passengers and staff alike.

“It’s appalling that the Government has the nerve to try and blame workers for the franchise’s failings when it’s clear from today’s report that it is, in fact, ministers and Govia Thameslink that have failed both passengers and Southern staff.

“The National Audit Office (NAO) is clear that one of the reasons Govia Thameslink has provided such poor value for money is because it has tried to cut costs by understaffing its trains.”

The latest RMT union strike, as part of its fight against DOO due to safety and accessibility concerns, was held on Monday January 8.

Mick Cash, general secretary of the RMT, suggested the ‘dynamite’ report ‘blows wide open the whole scandal’ of the GTR franchise.

He said: “The solution is simple. GTR should be stripped of the franchise for gross and repeated failures, the routes should be taken under public ownership and the cash-led cuts to safety critical staffing should be halted and reversed.

“Anything else is just another cop out and will spark a furious backlash from the passengers and staff caught in the middle of this grotesque chaos. This report should be the final nail in the coffin of more than two decades of rail privatisation in Britain.”

Mick Whelan, general secretary of train drivers’ union ASLEF, said: “The NAO, quite properly, condemns the DfT and the company for promising a timetable they both knew they could never deliver.”

He added: “This damning report clearly holds Chris Grayling and his predecessor, Patrick McLoughlin, to account for their handling of the fiasco on Southern Rail.

“On their watch, as the Secretaries of State for Transport, they let the DfT get it wrong.

“Passengers have suffered, totally unnecessarily, and taxpayers have had to pick up the bill. The company got it totally wrong – with the connivance of the DfT – now we want heads to roll.”

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