An investigation by the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) found that Network Rail had not done ‘everything reasonably practicable’ to deliver the reliability and punctuality needed to support services provided by train operating companies Southern and Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR).
Southern, which merged with GTR last month, has faced a barrage of criticism since the start of 2015, with many Sussex MPs calling its performance ‘lamentable’ at a recent Westminster Hall debate.
According to the ORR, Southern and GTR combined represented a third of punctuality delays and nearly half of cancelled and significantly delayed services in England and Wales in 2014/15.
While Network Rail apologised for the frustration experienced by rail users, it pointed out that £11m has been invested to improve performance for Southern and Thameslink passengers.
ORR chief executive Richard Price said: “Our investigation has identified important issues that Network Rail, working with operators, needs to address to improve performance for passengers on these routes. Our analysis shows that the company needs to develop a much better understanding of the impact of timetabling on the reliability of services and on rail users.
“These serious issues have caused severe disruption and frustration for passengers, most notably affecting services at and around London Bridge.
“ORR is therefore imposing a £2m fine on Network Rail – a decision we did not take lightly.
“The scale of the delays suffered by passengers was central to our decision to fine.
“The penalty sends a clear message to the Network Rail Board; Network Rail must urgently rectify these errors and deliver the reliability of services that passengers have paid for.”
The ORR’s investigation showed that for Southern and GTR there were serious weaknesses in the data that informed new timetables, Network Rail was overly optimistic in estimating and assessing the impact of the new timetables on performance, and issues experienced at London Bridge station.
Phil Hufton, managing director of network operations at Network Rail, said: “At the start of this year we had a number of problems that caused passengers disruption and frustration and we apologise for this. Since then we have proactively invested over £11m to improve performance for Southern and Thameslink passengers.
“This investment, which has seen the introduction of a revised timetable, improved equipment, the deployment of rapid-response maintenance teams at London Bridge as well as new information screens and better passenger information, is paying dividends and passenger service reliability has now improved by almost 12 per cent since January.
“While the nuts and bolts of our infrastructure are the most reliable they’ve even been, severe congestion caused by record numbers of trains and passengers makes delivering a consistently reliable service a daily challenge for ourselves and the train operators.
“At London Bridge we are undertaking the biggest and most complex station and track redevelopment ever attempted on Britain’s railways – while simultaneously continuing to keep services running.
“As we are now a public sector organisation, the fine must come from within our existing budget and will mean a reallocation of existing resources to pay it.”
He said the £11m investment had seen revised timetables, further improvements to the Brighton Mainline, more remote monitoring equipment for its infrastructure, and dedicated teams of maintenance staff concentrating around the London Bridge area.
However the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) said the £2m financial penalty was a ‘ludicrous way to run a railway’ as it effectively meant the taxpayer was fining itself.
RMT general secretary Mick Cash added: “The fines will have to be paid for by axing works or cutting staff, creating a vicious cycle of decline that is self-defeating and will just mean more fines and more cuts in the future which is a nonsense.
“There are deep-seated issues around fragmentation and a proliferation of contractors and agencies on our tracks, alongside a national skills shortage and budget pressures, which are compromising infrastructure projects and which will not be dealt with by handing out fines that simply compound the problems.”
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