'˜No collusion' by Government to stop GTR losing Southern franchise
Senior Government officials denied any '˜collusion' to stop the Southern rail franchise being stripped from the current operator Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR).
Just days after being appointed rail minister Paul Maynard was hauled before the Transport Select Committee today (Wednesday July 20), less than 24 hours after a day of chaos across the Sussex rail network.
A combination of a sinkhole near London, signalling failures, and slow running trains due to the effect of high temperatures on the tracks, saw passengers face lengthy delays on most routes, and huge overcrowding at Brighton Railway Station.
The Government has faced repeated calls to strip GTR of its franchise after months of disruption, but the operator is not in breach of its contract as a remedial plan was agreed with the Department for Transport (DfT) earlier this year.
Louise Ellman, chair of the select committee, asked who was ‘responsible for this sorry state of affairs’, pointing out that on the Southern Mainline just 12 per cent of services were on time on Tuesday.
Government officials agreed that the level of performance was ‘dreadful’ but many of Tuesday’s problems were due to failures in infrastructure .
Mrs Ellman said: “It seems to be a different reason every day. Do they have a list of reasons when it does not work?”
She asked if the temporary revised weekday timetable, which was brought in last Monday (July 11) cancelling hundreds of services a day, was a ‘devious arrangement with the company’, and if there was any ‘collusion’ by the DfT to avoid GTR avoiding breaching its conditions.
Peter Wilkinson, managing director of passenger services at the DfT, said: “It’s an understandable question but there was no collusion in that sense.”
Mrs Ellman said: “In what sense?”
Mr Wilkinson replied: “There was no collusion to produce a timetable that would effectively prevent them from breaching their obligations. That was not the purpose of the timetable.”
Graham Stringer, MP for Blackley and Broughton, asked if GTR would currently be in breach if measured against the old timetable.
Mr Wilkinson said he could not answer that question as he did not have the figures to hand.
Mr Stringer called it an ‘extraordinary answer’, while Mrs Ellman said she was ‘amazed’ he had come to the session not knowing that answer.
She added: “How can it be you can come to the session without having that basic information?”
Mrs Ellman also asked Mr Wilkinson about ‘inflammatory comments’ where he was reported as predicting a ‘punch-up with the unions’, asking for the public’s support to ‘break them’, and saying that if the unions did not get on board with changes they could ‘get the hell out of my industry’.
Mr Wilkinson said: “I do not want to discuss further what has been reported. I have gone on record as apologising for offence caused.”
Mr Maynard was asked when the timetable would return to normal, but he said he could not give the committee a date as this could ‘give false comfort to passengers’, but he hoped the full timetable could be restored ‘as speedily as possible’.
GTR has been locked in a bitter dispute with the RMT union over the future role of conductors as GTR is looking to start using driver only operation trains across Southern routes.
Since the union called its first strike, staff shortages have caused months of frequent delays and cancellations.
Both sides have blamed each other for the shortages and representatives from both organisations appeared before the committee earlier this month.
Huw Merriman, Bexhill and Battle MP, asked what the DfT was doing to facilitate discussions to end the dispute.
He said: “The Department for Transport seems to have sat back on this and said it’s up to Southern and the RMT to sort this out.”
Mr Maynard said he was ‘moderately perplexed’ about the RMT’s ‘genuine concerns’, but Mr Merriman pointed out that since GTR could only guarantee a second-safety trained member of staff on board Southern trains until the end of the franchise, it was up to the Government to offer guarantees beyond that.
On lessons learned from the current problems, Mr Maynard said he would be particularly looking at franchise handovers, as GTR has previously admitted it did not have a sufficient number of train drivers when it took over.
Meanwhile Bernadette Kelly, director general of the rail group at the DfT, added: “I do not think when we are looking at the shape and nature of future franchises we would readily create another one that had this level of challenge and complexity in it.”
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