Southern Rail services are a mess. The Government urgently needs to get a grip on this failing franchise.
Southern Rail passengers put up with a lot. There are no less than three industrial disputes going on involving a shortage of drivers, the role of guards and the closure of ticket offices. Services are being further disrupted by the major engineering works at London Bridge and Crossrail, and new trains intended to ease overcrowding have yet to be delivered while repairs to existing rolling stock have been delayed.
All this contributes to Southern services that are often unreliable, overcrowded and poor value. Passengers are in open revolt as the operator, the Govia Thameslink Railway, finds it increasingly difficult to get on top of the problems. There is clamour from some for GTR to be stripped of the franchise with public demonstrations and petitions against the operator. Complaints reached an apparent crescendo in May when the Government published details of its remedial plan for GTR which allowed the franchisee to cancel thousands more trains before being considered in breach of its franchise. Since then it has been revealed the Government has fined the operator £2 million and the industrial disputes have grown ever more bitter, ensuring passengers’ predicament remains in the headlines.
The most telling part of the whole sorry saga is that the Government knew some of these problems would happen. That is why, when it let the massive Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise (TSGN) in 2014, it was not as a conventional franchise where the operator makes their money – and takes their risk – with ticket sales. Instead, it was let as a management contract where the Government hands over the cash in return for the operator running the trains on time. Using a management contract for a period when major engineering works are planned seems reasonable in principle, but it has quickly become a recipe for disaster when you mix in all the other problems faced on Southern. The outcome is captured in a nutshell by the practice of trains skipping stations without warning in order to keep services 'on-time'.
The Government should have spotted that Southern’s lack of direct interest in passengers would lead to trouble. In recent years, Network Rail has run into similar problems, most notoriously with the Finsbury Park fiasco. Just a few months on from the Bowe and Shaw reviews of Network Rail it seems these lessons have not been applied to other parts of the railway.
The Southern debacle brings with it an interesting twist in the tale. Unable to get traction with the operator, people have turned to their MPs to demand action. The result has a cross-party tidal wave of Parliamentary questions, Westminster debates and requests for meetings with the Minister. With no let-up in criticism in sight, a tipping point may be nearing.
So, what to do? Campaign for Better Transport has written to the Minister setting out the action the Government should be considering. First, passengers need proper compensation for the months of poor services they have endured. As most rail users have little idea what compensation they are due, targets must be agreed so Southern gives passengers more of the money it owes them.
Second, the Government must step in to end the name-calling between unions and GTR. Good industrial relations are a prerequisite of better services and GTR, passenger groups, unions and the Department for Transport need to work together to resolve current disputes.
Third, and linked with the above, the Government needs to consider if the current TSGN franchise structure is viable in the longer term. While MPs’ campaigning has been visible and effective, should it really fall to MPs to resolve train delays? Other options are available, for example, moving franchise oversight from Whitehall to local authorities. This would be in keeping with trends toward devolution and would help foster a closer relationship between the operator and those who rely on its services. There is good evidence from MerseyRail and Transport for London that such an approach can lead to higher standards, better relations and improved services.
Fourth, the Government should consider whether Southern’s performance is so poor - and passengers' faith so damaged - that operations simply cannot continue. In this case, might Directly Operated Railways be awakened from its post-East Coast hibernation while long term plans for Southern are considered?
While all this and much else is up for grabs, the immediate focus must be on dramatically improving the train services for Southern’s long suffering passengers.
Image curtesy of Mike T via Flickr.