England

MPs urge ministers to 'get a grip' in midst of Southern strike woes

Southern train Image copyright PA
Image caption Industrial action over the role of guards has caused months of disruption on the Southern network

MPs have attacked the government's handling of rail franchises, saying passengers have been let down badly.

A Transport Select Committee report cited the "woeful" experience of Southern passengers, who have faced months of industrial action and staff shortages.

Ministers were urged to "get a grip" on monitoring rail franchise agreements.

The Department for Transport (DfT) said improving Southern services was a priority for the government.

The RMT union, which is locked in a bitter dispute with the rail operator over the future role of conductors, said the report was an indictment of the failure of rail privatisation.

It was published as Southern timetables returned to normal after a three-day strike by union members.

A further 11 days of strikes are planned before Christmas.

Southern's owners, Govia Thameslink Rail (GTR) said the report covered many issues already in the public domain.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Southern began imposing changes to the role of conductors in August

MPs said the evidence taken from rail passengers was dominated by problems faced by GTR.

'No longer credible'

The report considered whether the firm is now in default of its contractual obligations due to the substantial number of train cancellations.

"In normal circumstances, this would be grounds for termination of the contract," the report said.

The DfT's claim that no other operator could do a better job in the circumstances was no longer credible, the committee said.

On parts of the national rail network, passengers struggled daily to get the service they deserved, the report said.

It cited a number of other problems, including overcrowding, delays, complex ticketing and a lack of access for disabled passengers.

Image copyright EPA

Committee chairman Louise Ellman said passengers must be "furious, and rightly so".

"The individual voices of customers suffering woeful service on Southern Railway, in particular, came through loud and clear during our inquiry," she said.

"GTR, RMT and the government are all culpable to some extent for the prolonged dispute, but passengers have borne the brunt."

Ms Ellman said the size of the rail network had barely increased despite passenger journeys more than doubling over the last 20 years.

"Passengers now contribute more than 70% of the industry's real income, but in too many places, passengers are badly serviced by train operating companies," she added.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption The findings were published as Southern timetables returned to normal after a three-day strike by union members

The report recommended an automatic compensation scheme be set up to refund Southern passengers directly without the need to make a claim.

The DfT said it monitored the performance of all rail franchises and each franchise agreement contained clear penalty clauses for repeated poor performance.

"Simply changing the management or taking the franchise from GTR would not address the issues and would only create uncertainty and cause further disruption," it said in a statement.

'Not good enough'

GTR's CEO Charles Horton said the firm had submitted claims to the DfT for unforeseeable circumstances caused by industrial action that prevented it from fulfilling its contract.

"We recognise and fully accept that our service on parts of the GTR franchise has not been good enough and we are sincerely sorry to our passengers for that," he said.

"Our passengers have already seen 400 new vehicles on our network in the past two years [and] extended smart card technology across our network.

"We remain committed and determined to modernise the railway and deliver a better service for everyone."

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