Improving Southern services '˜top priority' for new transport secretary

The new Transport Secretary's '˜top priority' is improving Southern services, which were labelled a '˜national disgrace' by MPs last week.

New Transport Secretary Chris Grayling pictured in Eastbourne
New Transport Secretary Chris Grayling pictured in Eastbourne

Rail passengers have faced months of disruption due to staff shortages as Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), which runs Southern, has been locked in a bitter dispute with the RMT union over the future role of conductors on trains.

Chris Grayling, who was appointed by new Prime Minister Theresa May last week, said that the issue was ‘absolutely at the top of my priority list’.

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Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s The World This Weekend on Sunday, Mr Grayling said: “This is right at the top of my agenda. I have already had meetings about it, I will be having meetings on Monday about it, and of course this needs to be sorted.”

Asked if he was planning to strip GTR of its franchise, he added: “I’m not going to set out any aspects of what I’m going to do right now.

“It’s right and proper having only been in the job for 36 hours that I look very carefully at the what the position is, but I’m very clear this has got to improve and it’s got to improve quickly.”

Meanwhile Rail minister Claire Perry resigned just days after telling Sussex MPs her ‘falling on her sword’ would not solve the problems with Southern services.

She has been replaced by Paul Maynard, MP for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, who described the appointment as a ‘great challenge and opportunity’ to serve his constituents and the country.

During at debate in Parliament last Wednesday (July 13), Ms Perry said: “If I thought it would help by me falling on my sword, I would. I have thought about it repeatedly. I do not like failure. I do not fail at stuff in my life. This feels like a failure.”

She explained that the contractual levers in the management contract are ‘really poor’ and given all of the problems experienced by GTR it is not currently in breach of its franchise contract.

Tim Loughton, East Worthing and Shoreham MP, argued that if problems were not sorted by the beginning of September, then GTR should lose its franchise by the end of 2016.

Mr Loughton said: “She [Ms Perry] said that the company was not in breach. When on earth will it technically be in breach? We need to know that.”

He added: “This is embarrassing, pathetic, unsustainable and a national disgrace for Britain’s largest rail passenger carrier.

“The management, the unions and, frankly, the Department for Transport should all be thoroughly ashamed that we are in this state of affairs.”

This paper has launched a campaign calling on GTR to be stripped of its franchise and the introduction of a revised temporary weekday timetable last Monday (July 11), cancelling 341 trains a day, caused fury in areas that have been affected.

The rail operator made further alterations to the timetable today (Monday July 18), which has seen some services reinstated.

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