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New rail minister can’t give date for restoration of Southern services

The newly appointed minister for rail said yesterday that his aim is to restore the normal level of service on the Southern network, but couldn’t give a date for when he expected that to be achieved by.

Paul Maynard, the MP for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, was appointed as a parliamentary under-secretary to the DfT as part of new prime minister Theresa May’s reshuffle.

He has previously sat on the Transport Select Committee and was given responsibility for rail when Claire Perry resigned after saying that the Southern franchise felt “like a failure.”

Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), which operates Southern, was recently forced to cancel 341 services in order to try to get control of the franchise after mass delays, although it has since restored 16 of these.

The problems are so bad that London mayor Sadiq Khan has said Transport for London should take over the franchise, as a temporary measure.

In an appearance before the Transport Select Committee yesterday, Maynard said: “My expectation is for GTR to incrementally improve the level of service to get the timetable back to the original timetable.

“I do not wish here and now at this stage to put a finite stage on when I think that can be achieved, but my expectation for GTR is for it to be done as speedily and effectively as possible without compromising either passenger safety or the integrity and reliability of the network.”

However, he refused to give a date for when services should be restored beyond saying that it should be done “speedily”, saying that to do otherwise would offer “false comfort”.

Lack of guarantees 'concerning'

Speaking after the hearing, Louise Ellman, chair of the committee, said: “We are grateful to Paul Maynard who attended our hearing in his new capacity as minister for rail.

“I am deeply concerned we still do not have any firm guarantees on when the current situation on Southern Railway will be resolved or when a full and reliable timetable will resume.

“This is disappointing and passengers will rightly be angry at the apparent lack of any resolution so far.

“We urge Paul Maynard to make this issue his first priority by meeting with both GTR and the RMT union.”

Wilkinson driver apology

Peter Wilkinson, managing director of passenger services at the Department for Transport, also appeared before the committee, and said that he apologised for remarks he made to a public meeting in Croydon in February.

Wilkinson told the meeting that train drivers protesting against changes to their working hours should “decide if they want to give a good service or get the hell out of my industry”.

Mick Whelan, general secretary of ASLEF, said he was glad Wilkinson had apologised.

“It’s taken him a very long time to do the decent thing but we are glad that he has,” he said. “Now that transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin has been moved, and rail minister Claire Perry resigned, we have an opportunity to move forward together, all of us who work in the rail industry, to build a better railway for the benefit of passengers, business, and staff alike.”

Not ruling out further talks

Maynard said there were no current plans for further talks between GTR and RMT, which has led a series of strikes over the extension of driver-operated only services on the franchise, although he said he would “not rule it out”.

The rail minister also said that he would scrutinise the handover programme for GTR’s takeover of the franchise to ensure that “everything was done that could be done”, as well as the relationship between Southern and Network Rail.

“I want to understand how the two interact, so when one has a problem it doesn’t disproportionately affect the other’s performance,” said Maynard.

When asked whether the GTR franchise, which also includes Gatwick Express, Great Northern, Thameslink and some Southeastern services, was too big for the separate elements to be operated safely and whether that should be considered when the franchise is renewed in 2021, he said: “We will have a very open mind over how we do that and how we comprise the very different elements of what is a very different franchise at the moment.”

Saying he wanted to be “the passengers’ champion”, Maynard told the committee he had met with Paul Plummer of the Rail Delivery Group the day before to discuss accelerating the implementation of smart ticketing.

“I’m told they have plans,” he said. “I’m told they’re working hard towards those plans. I don’t want that to be a cliché. I want to understand what the dates are, what the interim measurements are, what evidence of progress is being made, because I don’t feel there is sufficient progress on this.”

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Huguenot   21/07/2016 at 21:26

In all the problems over Southern -- and they are huge -- I hope that the new Rail Minister doesn't overlook the other GTR problem, namely the high number of cancellations on Thameslink due to 'voluntary' weekend working. Will he take this up too with GTR when he meets them?

Neil Palmer   22/07/2016 at 18:30

Huguenot, Unfortunately that's another issue that's going to involve RMT (& ASLEF) changing their stance on working practices from the 19th century, so you know how well that's going to proceed.

Andrew Gwilt   23/07/2016 at 12:49

Im afraid that it could be the death of "Southern Railways".

Jason Rice   25/07/2016 at 09:18

I expect further cuts to the service before this ends which is a very bitter pill for me to swallow as over the past 2 years Southern services have been cut by over 20% but my season ticket has risen by 3.5%

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