Parliamentary Committees and Public Enquiries
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Government must 'get a grip' on monitoring rail franchise agreements

Lessons must be learned from the woeful experience of passengers on Southern Railway, say MPs on the Transport Select Committee.

Rail passengers have been badly let down by Government failure to structure, monitor and enforce franchise agreements and the planning and management of major rail infrastructure projects.

The call comes as MPs publish a report, 'Improving the rail passenger experience', in which the Committee examines the railway from the passengers' experience.

Southern Railway

The evidence was dominated by the problems faced by Govia Thameslink Railway (operators of Southern Railway) passengers for more than a year: poor management of the franchise from the beginning, inadequate staffing, rolling stock issues, mismanagement and prolonged industrial action complicated by the huge Thameslink infrastructure programme.

The report considers whether GTR is now in default of its contractual obligations. The proportion of services cancelled on GTR's network is now substantially in excess of the default level. In normal circumstances, this would be grounds for termination of the contract.

GTR has made claims for force majeure (which would revise its contractual benchmarks due to events beyond their control). The Committee is critical that crucial processes have been delayed by the 'tardiness' of GTR in supplying the information required to assess the claims.

Should the company be in default, the Department for Transport must take the opportunity to restructure or terminate the agreement and deliver services in a more effective way for passengers. The Committee concludes that the DfT's claim that "no other operator" could do a better job in the circumstances is no longer credible.

The scrutiny of GTR's performance against its contractual obligations was made more difficult by lack of access to essential information. The Committee is calling for this information to be made publicly available.

Poor passenger service

On parts of the rail network, passengers struggle to get the service they deserve on a daily basis. Lack of access for disabled passengers, overcrowding, delays, complex ticketing, poor deals for part-time commuters, a lack of timely information on delays and insufficiently informative updates available through websites and apps – add to the misery of passengers across the rail network.

MPs cast doubt on the value of the official measures of overall passenger satisfaction and call for operator performance measures which reflect the reality of passenger experience.

Chair's comments

The Chair of the Transport Select Committee, Louise Ellman MP, commented:

"Passengers must be furious – and rightly so. While the number of passenger journeys on the railway has more than doubled over the last two decades, the size of the physical network has barely increased at all. Passengers now contribute more than 70% of the industry's real income, but in too many places, passengers are badly served by train operating companies.

The individual voices of customers suffering woeful service on Southern Railway, in particular, came through loud and clear during our inquiry. GTR, RMT and the Government are all culpable to some extent for the prolonged dispute and passengers have borne the brunt.

We welcome Government's decision to launch an enhanced rail compensation scheme on GTR. It's taken ministers some time to acknowledge the difficulties faced by passengers, but the Delay Repay 15 scheme will offer compensation when trains are more than 15 minutes late. Now ministers need to be more hands-on with monitoring franchises, and sort out the Southern Railway mess in particular."

Committee recommendations

The report recommends:

  • The Government should immediately put in place an automatic compensation scheme, in which TSGN's passengers are refunded directly, without the necessity to make a claim.
  • The current systems of measuring passenger satisfaction should be reviewed and the Public Performance Measure should be abandoned. An alternative, updated 'right-time' measures, should be in place by summer 2017.
  • The Department for Transport (DfT) should refine mechanisms to gather information on overcrowding with a view to more clearly identifying train services which operate overcapacity.
  • The DfT should develop a more coherent strategy for tackling overcrowding and find better ways to alleviate the worst examples of persistent overcrowding on particular services.
  • A coordinated, industry-wide strategy should be prepared in order to provide network-wide smart ticketing by April 2017, and combat the unfairness and complexity of current ticketing arrangements.
  • A better deal for part-time rail commuters.
  • A detailed plan from ATOC/RDG to provide websites and apps which improve the passenger experience.
  • Improved information from National Rail Enquiries on service provision including delays and/or disruptions.
  • The Committee welcomes the commitment to identify the best solutions to deliver Wi-Fi to all passengers and recommends a plan is published by summer 2017.

Future of Rail

This report, 'Improving the rail passenger experience', is one of a series of five inter-related inquiries by the Transport Committee into the 'Future of Rail'.

The current problems on Southern Railway emphasise key barriers to the railway functioning effectively within the current structures of the rail sector. This issue will be explored further as the Committee continues to take evidence for the inquiry into rail franchising.

Next in line for publication is the report on proposed new rail technology, including updated signalling, rail technology and rail traffic management systems as part of a 'digital railway'.

The safety of the railway and the strategic issues of rail finance and governance will complete the series.

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