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PASSENGER misery on Southern Rail, Britain’s worst performing railway, “could have been avoided,” a damning new report finds today.
The National Audit Office’s long-awaited inquiry into the Southern Rail fiasco found that the operation “has not delivered value for money.”
The report concludes that Tory ministers failed to anticipate that a controversial plan to axe train guards would be met with fierce resistance. After seeing the damning report, union leaders said they wanted “heads to roll.”
Southern has faced near-continuous industrial strife for almost two years over its plans to convert its entire network to driver-only operation — meaning trains do not require an on-board guard.
But its network between London and the south coast has been beset with problems even when no strikes have taken place.
Rail union RMT’s general secretary Mick Cash said the report was a “dynamite” indictment of “collusion” between the government and private rail operators.
“The report makes it clear that tens of millions of pounds of public money, cash which could have guaranteed a guard on the trains and delivered decent, accessible rail services, was instead wasted propping up the private owners while they presided over the worst rail franchise in the country,” he said.
“This is a scandal of epic proportions with [Transport Secretary] Chris Grayling and the Tories centre stage.”
Since Southern’s parent company Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) took over operating Britain’s biggest rail franchise in July 2015, around 146,000 services — 7.7 per cent — have been either cancelled or delayed by over 30 minutes.
On the rest of Britain’s network, the figure is just 2.8 per cent.
The Department for Transport (DfT) and GTR say industrial action was the biggest cause of cancellations, although the operator has also been hit by a shortage of employed drivers.
Under a unique arrangement with the DfT, the train firm does not collect fare revenue itself, but is instead paid a fee to operate the franchise by the government.
Between the start of the franchise and August 2017 the DfT made payments of £2.8 billion to Govia and received £3.6bn from train tickets.
The arrangement has led rail unions to accuse the government of using it as a test-bed for expanding driver-only trains.
In today’s report, comptroller-general Amyas Morse notes that the government “recognised that this franchise contract, which was different from other franchises in that fare revenue was received by the department rather than the operator, meant that Govia Thameslink may have less incentive to avoid strikes than other operators.”
Shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald said: “The National Audit Office's claim that passenger misery could have been avoided if the DfT had taken more care to consider passengers is true for the entire railway.”
Mr Morse also says Whitehall “did not fully evaluate the possible effects on passengers of different scenarios of industrial action before awarding the contract, nor did it ask Govia Thameslink to do so.”
Government officials did realise that the rapid expansion of driver-only trains “would increase the risk of industrial action,” the report says.
But the government was encouraged by the “limited” scale of resistance to previous operations in which guards were axed.
Mr Cash called for Southern’s owners to be stripped of the franchise — and cuts to staffing reversed.
“Anything else is just another cop out and will spark a furious backlash from the passengers and staff caught in the middle of this grotesque chaos.
“This report should be the final nail in the coffin of more than two decades of rail privatisation in Britain.”
Drivers’ union Aslef’s leader Mick Whelan added: “The company got it totally wrong — with the connivance of the DfT.
“Now we want heads to roll, starting with Chris Grayling and Peter Wilkinson.”
Govia chief executive Charles Horton said the difficulties faced by the franchise have “sometimes been greater than expected and we regret the disruption caused to our passengers.”
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