Lewes MP: Strip Southern of franchise now after timetable ‘farce’

Maria Caulfield, Lewes MP, with colleagues meeting Transport Secretary Chris Grayling
Maria Caulfield, Lewes MP, with colleagues meeting Transport Secretary Chris Grayling

Lewes’ MP has repeated calls for the Government to strip the operator of Southern trains of its franchise following problems with the introduction of a new timetable.

Govia Thameslink Railway, which also runs Thameslink and Gatwick Express services, brought in the changes on May 20.

But since then it has cancelled hundreds of Thameslink services and was forced to bring in a reduced temporary timetable, while Southern passengers have also experienced disruption and overcrowding.

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling announced an independent inquiry into the problems during a speech in the House of Commons on Monday.

The work will be led by Stephen Glaister, chair of the Office of Rail and Road.

A spokesman for GTR said: “We welcome the inquiry and will co-operate fully. The industry as a whole undoubtedly has lessons to learn from what has happened.”

Maria Caulfield, Conservative MP for Lewes, said: “Do we really need a review before action is taken?

“People who commute from Lewes, Polegate, Seaford, Newhaven and many more stations have had to endure not just the timetable changes, but 18 months of strike action and 18 months of misery while the London Bridge works were happening, and we now have fewer trains than ever before.

“When trains do run, they sometimes do not stop, as happened ​in Lewes and Polegate today, and when they do stop, passengers cannot get on because of short formations, with trains going down from 12 carriages to four today. The only question my constituents have is: ‘When is Southern Rail going to lose its franchise?’ If I can be helpful to the Secretary of State, the answer should be ‘Now’.”

In response Mr Grayling said: “The important thing to do is to make sure that these problems are sorted out. It may be that at the end of this there is a franchise change, but I want to do anything like that in the right way, in the right timeframe, and in a way that is justifiable.

“I have to fulfil contractual commitments. I have to look at where culpability lies. We need to go through that process first. In the meantime, having short-formation trains on Southern, which otherwise is performing pretty well, is completely unacceptable, and it needs to fix that straight away.”

Afterwards Ms Caulfield said: “Commuters from my constituency have simply had enough of Southern Rail. It is just not good enough that after months of strike action and chaos on the railways Southern’s new timetable that we were told would be much better for passengers has descended into a farce, and is causing misery on the same scale as the strike action.

“Trains are cancelled at not even a moment’s notice, stations are skipped with no warnings, and if a train does turn up it is likely to have less carriages than advertised, sometimes even as many as eight fewer carriages.

“This is just not good enough, and I don’t believe it is necessary for an inquiry to proportion the blame. GTR must be broken up, the Southern franchise removed and put into more capable hands.”

While a report is due from by the end of the year Mr Grayling said he wanted initial responses much sooner.

In parallel he would be asking Department for Transport officials to assess whether GTR has met its contractual obligations in planning and delivering the timetable changes.

This will look at if the operator had sufficient resources and skills to deliver the new timetable and what contingency plans were in place.

If the company is found to be materially in breach of its contractual obligations Mr Grayling would take ‘appropriate enforcement action’.

He acknowledged the late finalisation of the timetables by Network Rail had not given train operators enough time to plan crew schedules or complete crew training, but also suggested GTR did not have enough drivers with the route knowledge required and had no clear fall-back plan.

The process of introducing GTR’s new timetable was overseen by both an industry readiness board and an independent assurance panel.

Mr Grayling described how both groups had told him they had been given no information to suggest the new timetable should not be implemented as planned, while three weeks before May 20 he had been assured personally by GTR it was ready to go ahead with the changes.

Charles Horton, chief executive officer at GTR, said they were ‘sorry that we have not been able to deliver the service that passengers expect’.

Mark Carne, Network Rail’s chief executive, added: “We are all firmly focused on fixing this issue as quickly as possible to give passengers the reliable service they need and deserve.

“At the moment, in some parts of the country, that simply isn’t happening and for that I’d like to wholeheartedly apologise.”