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Wilkinson: DfT ‘would not embark upon’ a franchise similar to TSGN again

The DfT has admitted it would not design a single franchise the size of Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern (TSGN) again in the future, the managing director of passenger services admitted to MPs yesterday.

Peter Wilkinson was asked about the performance of the franchise, which has been beset by disastrous performance problems on the Southern route since Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) took it over last year, at a Transport Select Committee hearing on rail franchising.

Last month, the committee published a report into the franchise, which criticised the decision to allow GTR to operate all three routes, making it the largest single franchise in the country.

Wilkinson told MPs yesterday: “I think it is fair to say that we would not embark upon a franchise of that design and that construct and that nature again. It is absolutely clear to us that we have arrived upon a place with that franchise where, in plain English, one wouldn’t start from here.”

He said the TSGN deal had suffered from being a “bridging franchise”, where the tender process which was already underway when the Virgin West Coast deal collapsed in 2012.

This meant that, although the tendering process was paused, the department could not incorporate lessons from the failed franchise.

Wilkinson added: “The department is absolute in its commitment to remove a franchise if the conditions are such that the decision is merited. There would be no hesitation on the department’s part if, in the public interest, it was right to remove the franchise from the franchise holder.”

However, Paul Maynard, the rail minister, who also appeared before the committee, did not go so far as to say the department would never let a similar franchise again.

Instead, he said: “I undoubtedly agree that there are lessons that would have to be learned if the department let a franchise of similar complexity in the future, not least in the planning stage as opposed to the management stage.”

London mayor Sadiq Khan and Campaign for Better Transport have proposed stripping Southern of the franchise and transferring it to TfL.

GTR began operating Southern services at a time when the network was about to undergo substantial development work at London Bridge.

In last month’s report, the Transport Select Committee said that the department’s failure to question “wildly inaccurate” planning assumptions about the works raised “serious questions” about its ability to run the franchising programme.

Maynard said that similar problems would not occur during the upcoming works at London Waterloo.

Instead, he promised the DfT would take steps to “ensure there is continuity of provision” and that bidders for the new South Western franchise would be required to produce “clear handover plans” for how they would deal with the works.

More generally, Maynard insisted the department was well-placed to handle franchising, pointing out that it had successfully let six franchises and 10 direct awards since 2013.

“I think the department has learned many of the lessons from the Brown review and is in a much better place to carry out the current franchising schedule,” he said.

In response to questions from MPs, the minister added that he had not personally considered transferring franchising to an external body, which was mentioned in the Brown review, since he became minister in July. Instead, he said the department’s track record since 2013 showed it was “right to retain in house”.

Maynard also repeated his commitment to improving passenger experience on the railways. He said that new TOCs might be needed who were equipped to act as “mass transit authorities rather than pure rail companies”.

“We need to get a more broad consortia of firms involved, who don’t just have a background in operating trains but are better at customer service aspects of travel, also the manipulation of big data,” he said.

When asked about GTR’s industrial dispute with RMT, he said the union should “put passengers first [and] call off the strikes”.

RMT has led Southern train guards in a series of strikes this year, most recently announcing strikes on Christmas Eve and the New Year.

However, the rail minister added that “every time” he met GTR representatives, he asked them how they intended to “improve relations with staff” when the strike was over. Maynard said higher levels of staff satisfaction would help improve customer service as part of his drive to “rehumanise the railway”.

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Simon   08/11/2016 at 10:57

Sat in that chair he looks like Richard O Brien from the Crystal Maze!

Julian Weatherall   08/11/2016 at 14:03

I wish I was earning over £260K a year like Mr Wilkinson and still working as a consultant in conflict of my day job - yet according to him train drivers earn over £60,000 a year for a three say week!!

James Palma   08/11/2016 at 17:32

Hang on. How is the overall franchise the problem? The franchise holder took over a year ago during major rebuilding of an extremely major station, including track realignment and also has to contend with sorting out doo at the same time. The works are not their fault! Though obviously the have a part to play in the doo mess, pardon the pun. Its like giving a broken down car and with no wheels to someone in london and saying drop me off in Scotland, now.

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