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DfT told to stop ‘ducking’ Southern contract issue and make up its mind

The Transport Select Committee has urged the DfT to hurry up in deciding whether Southern is failing to run adequate services, arguing that ministers cannot “duck” the issue further and should come to a conclusion urgently.

But rail minister Paul Maynard has claimed that the DfT cannot yet consider terminating or restructuring GTR’s contract due to the company’s claims for force majeure over industrial action that has been ongoing since 2015, leading to accusations that the government is dilly-dallying instead of improving the situation for passengers.

“GTR's claims for force majeure were made 10 months ago,” stressed Louise Ellman MP, chair of the committee. “While the Transport Committee appreciates the complexity of the situation, the department must state publicly whether the company is in default of its contractual obligations.

“The DfT has a duty to act decisively in the best interests of passengers and taxpayers. At the last forecast, the department had already incurred losses of £38m in revenue—a figure likely to rise. Ministers cannot duck this issue. The committee will continue to push for openness and clarity."

Maynard’s latest letter to Ellman reveals that the DfT has assessed the first three periods of GTR’s claim but the operator used its right to challenge the assessment, meaning that the department must now consider the challenge.

The DfT will not publish its assessment of GTR’s failures until the challenge has been considered, but there is yet no indication as to when this will be.

“Officials are currently considering the additional information provided and are in discussion with GTR,” Maynard wrote in his letter. “These discussions will determine whether the additional evidence provided is admissible and has any material effect on the assessment of the claim.

“I assure you that everything possible is being done to ensure this matter is brought to a close, and I am as frustrated as you are that we have yet to draw a line on this process.”

He added that the DfT expects to resolve the challenge “as soon as possible”.

However, the rail minister stressed that even if the department dismisses GTR’s claim and finds the operator to have breached its target, termination of the franchise is only discretionary and not “an absolute duty” for the government.

GTR’s ongoing problems have led to rumours that the DfT is considering assuming partial or full control of the franchise, either by separating Southern from GTR or taking direct control of the full franchise until a new contract could be let. 

Yet the DfT has said that there are no plans to strip GTR of its franchise, dismissing the report as “pure speculation”.

Aslef and Southern are currently continuing talks to try to resolve their long-running row over driver-only trains after planned strikes were suspended last week. The franchise is currently running a full timetable despite continued action by a small number of RMT drivers, yet has been consistently finishing at the bottom of performance and satisfaction tables – including in the recent Transport Focus survey from this week and a Which? survey from earlier this month.

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James Palma   26/01/2017 at 20:32

Can someone please ouine the ACTUAL causes for the disruption to the soutbern servics and the ACTUAL solutions they ckuld reasonavly do to minimise these. All i can think of are the london bridge works. Hw can these be reasonably be avoided by the TOC amd the strikes, which again are reasonably outsode of the TOCs control. The latter in that ot has been commissioned to update operation of the railway and it is the unions causing the strike. So again how can the company reasonably have delt with these situtions which are actually causd by other parties?

Graham   27/01/2017 at 00:00

I support the Transport Committee's call for urgent action. People have lost their jobs over this Southern mess! Paul Maynard needs to take the franchise away from GTR NOW!

Lutz   27/01/2017 at 00:20

It is rather ridiculous that the Parliamentary Oversight Committee should place dogma over the basic business contract rules. The Committee is frequently used for posturing rather than addressing basic Customer issues (e.g. Customers held to ransom over the current set of cynical withholding of labour by the Trotsky Rail Unions) or service improvement (trains arriving on time at every stop) or basic legal constraints.

H   27/01/2017 at 04:30

The solution is simple. Why dither about trying to find excuses for GTR. They have been utterly dreadful time and time again, the passengers have suffered far more than enough disruption for several months. Lies about cancelling trains, putting the frontline staff in the face of all the disruption, Severely damaged the UK economy, destroted their own reputation to running a reliable service and worst of all allowing the industrial actions to happen rather than find a solution quickly to restore the service that the fare paying public expect. Dont muck about and hurry up and STRIP GTR of their franchise!

Jbzoom   27/01/2017 at 06:53

The situation has been manufactured by the DfT. When they agreed with Network Rail to cut a billion quid from the London Bridge redevelopment costs, it was done by increasing the numbers of platforms closed for rebuilding at any one time. Guaranteeing chaos, particularly when a train breaks down, even if the crews were not being stroppy. Similarly, the DfT did not include any obligation in the old Southern and Thameslink franchises for the operators to hand over an adequate number of drivers to operate the service when handed over. So, particularly for Thameslink, the operators stopped recruiting and training sometime before their franchises ran out. Even if the timetable was one the infrastructure could support, it could only be operated if the drivers were willing to work ridiculous overtime until more could be recruited and trained, which is difficult in the current climate. Finally, the DfT mandated Driver Only Operation for all the new trains to be delivered after the change of franchise when the only agreement with the unions covered 8 carriage trains on Thameslink routes. The unions say that, with the courts currently keen to imprison railway staff whose trains move off with passengers trapped, they want the job of closing the doors separated from that of driving the train, particularly when 12 carriage trains call at platforms with curved faces, meaning you have to get off the train or scan multiple video screens to see if it's safe to move off. This dispute is not really about safety from the Government side, it is about picking a fight with the unions and winning it, whatever the disruption and whatever the safety case. Sacking GTR would make bugger all difference to anything.

Chris   27/01/2017 at 13:22

Southern's unreliability has been caused in very large part by the London Bridge works (responsible: the government via NR) and the strikes (responsible: the unions for using an issue they have previously agreed with to bash a government they don't like, and the government for stipulating in GTR's contract that DOO must go ahead). How, exactly, would another operator get over these issues? Those calling for the franchise to be stripped simply can't or won't see the reality of the situation, or are more interested in action for the sake of action rather than in a solution to the problems here.

B   27/01/2017 at 14:44

TOCs are incredibly heavily unionised by nature. The staff get a new paymaster every few years as a franchise is re-let, and all are constantly in fear of job cuts. Having dealt with several of the current TOCs for years now, some are better than others. But few are worse than Govia (Thameslink & Southern) for internal disputes, disciplinary proceedings & staff sickness rates. Morale is incredibly low & the franchise is borderline bankrupt. The new franchising model of punctuality & cleanliness could't have been applied to a worse organisation. Watch 'Carry on at your convenience' if you want to understand how easily these guys will strike.

Brian Armitage   27/01/2017 at 19:34

One suspects that the GTR/RTM dispute could be resolved if the DfT guaranteed a Train Supervisor on all trains in the next franchise period as well as this one.

Tom   28/01/2017 at 20:26

Im sick to death with these people defending GTR. Great Northern used to be a good franchise in the past with high performance figures and was a pretty reliable service all round. Since these GoVia muppets have xome along Great Northern has gone down the pan and it's obvious to the daily commuters nobody really gives a damn. I'm sure if the situation down on Southern wasn't so bad there would be more focus on our problems at Great Northern. Trains cancelled willy nilly due to drivers shortages, especially at weekends, unreliable old trains that are clearly not being maintained effectively any more due to an impending "new" fleet. Infrastructure problems virtually every day on my commute. When's anyone going to address our concerns rather than banging on about Southern every given hour?

Mike Guerra   29/01/2017 at 09:04

I think JBZoom has hit the nail on the head with respect to the DfT's responsibility in the Southern mess. It also has to be remembered that Southern are not full franchise holders on the Southern and so are limited by the DfT to how they can operate, including the DOO issue. WRT to poor GN performance, this is principally down to driver availability. There was a lack of drivers recruited towards the end of the previous franchise, and with the introduction of initially unreliable Siemens 700s on TL, there was a transition issue with the problem of GN drivers having been trained to drive the 387s currently being cascaded to GN having to be retrained on 317s and 365s. Also TL drivers had to be requalified for 387s. As it takes weeks to requalify a driver on a route for particular stock, there were long periods when there was a critical shortage of available drivers on both GN and TL, for which no amount of rest-day working can compensate for.

Martin T   31/01/2017 at 20:14

I agree with comments from the majoritiy of postings above that any replacement TOC will not do a better job. GTR's management may be inept at handing difficult problems but the problems are difficult to manage. The reality is that the probrlms are being solved, gradually. London Bridge will be completed in 2018; more drivers are coming on steam (though not fast enough and training must continue to replace retiring drivers and to avoid rest-day working) and the strike will be resolved. Re: "GTR/RMT dispute could be resolved if the DfT guaranteed a Train Supervisor on all trains in the next franchise period as well as this one." Actually, I do not think this is about job security but union bargaining power, which is reduced if RMT members can no longer cause trains to be cancelled if they go on strike. As others have said before, on-board staff checking and selling tickets give a good financial return and should NOT be prime candidates for axing. The issue is that the former conductor/guards are overpaid for a customer-service role. A former RPI who because an OBS and a new OBS will get, say, £20k a year but a former conductor/guard will get, say, £35k but both will do the same job. Apparently Southern Rail will not re-certify the former conductor/guard’s safety licence and certification now that they are On-Board Supervisors, so there is no possible reason to pay them £15k more per year. (Also, staff in ticket offices are doing some of the role of an OBS - ticket selling - and staff at the gateline are checking tickets - they are just not doing it on the train. Both are on a similar rate to the OBS, not the former conductor/guards.) GTR and the DfT are creating a massive pay disparity that will not be solved for decades even if they froze the pay of the former conductor/guards (to make matters worse they are guaranteeing them two years' above-inflation pay rises). Perhpas the mistake by DfT/GTR wes not to make all of the conductor/guards redfundant and give every one of them a generous £50k no-strings redundancy payment with guatanteed acceptance if they applied to become an OBS. Approx 220 conductor/guards have become OBSs. The payoff would have cost about £11m - far less than the strike disruption has cost.

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