In 2014, the Government put out to tender a contract to run a rail franchise encompassing Southern, Thameslink, Great Northern and Gatwick Express.
The franchise was awarded to a consortium of the Go-Ahead Group, SNCF (the French national railways corporation) and a Quebec pension fund, and became known as GTR.
The Thameslink and Great Northern franchise commenced in September 2014, and Southern and Gatwick Express joined in July 2015.
The contract is unusual in that the Department for Transport (DfT) will pay GTR £8.9 thousand million pounds over a 7-year period while ticket revenue goes to the DfT.
By contrast, under previous privatisation contracts the franchisee payed the DfT for the franchise and kept the revenues. From the outset there were complaints about reliability, punctuality and overcrowding.
At a recent public meeting the GTR Director of Operations admitted that their manning plan was predicated on employees working overtime. In effect, they didn’t employ sufficient staff to run the contracted 7-day service and expected the shortfall to be covered by overtime working.
It is also apparent that GTR has not leased a sufficient amount of rolling stock, which has exacerbated the overcrowding problem.
Did the DfT carry out ‘due diligence’ before letting the contract? I have asked our local MP that question but have not received an answer.
In the year from April 2015 to March 2016, only 20% of Southern trains arrived on time and the Thameslink service was rated by passengers as the worst in the country. At the beginning of the summer of 2016, GTR announced its intention to extend the use of driver only operated trains when they must have known that such a move would be opposed by the RMT union.
The result, unsurprisingly, is an on-going and increasingly bitter dispute.
Having initiated the dispute, GTR was then unable to meet the terms of its contract and asked the then Minister, Claire Perry, to allow them to invoke a clause in the contract that enabled them to introduce an emergency timetable. Astonishingly, Perry allowed the request and GTR was permitted to cancel 347 trains a day. GTR is now proposing to close some ticket offices and reduce the opening hours of others. That move is unpopular with customers and is likely to lead to a further dispute with the RMT and also involve the Transport and Salaried Staff union. In what way would GTR’s proposal improve the reliability and punctuality of services and reduce overcrowding? Now the Government is putting in a further £20 million and creating a new review board to work with Southern, the DfT and Network Rail to improve matters. The Government is also intent on raising fares, unsurprisingly, as they are dependent on the revenues under the terms of this contract. The misery continues daily for thousands of commuters and while the MPs call meetings and form committees nothing is actually being done to remedy the situation. In the meantime, GTR, the new Minister, Chris Grayling, our local MPs and the right-wing press continue with the myth that the whole problem is caused by the obdurate RMT union. It’s also interesting to note that while the Government is opposed to nationalisation of our railways, it’s perfectly in order for the French, Dutch (Abellio) and German (DB) national railways to operate on our network.
T A Brady
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