Department for Transport ‘did not expect anything like’ number of strikes over driver-only trains

Written by Tamsin Rutter on 27 February 2018 in News

Officials outlined changes to rail franchising and told MPs trade unions refused to engage over Govia Thameslink franchise

Credit: Andrew Matthews/PA 

Top officials from the Department for Transport have said they didn’t anticipate “anything like” the level of strike action taken over the increase in driver-only operated trains by operator Govia Thameslink.

MPs were told the department had been unsuccessful in its attempts to engage trade unions at the time that the contract was let to Govia, which now has a reputation as the least punctual train operator in the UK.

A National Audit Office report released last month found that around 146,000 trains have either been cancelled or delayed by over 30 minutes since Govia took over the franchise in 2015 – a rate of 7.7% compared with 2.8% on the rest of the network. The watchdog found that staff shortages and strike action were responsible for 60% of the disruption.

Govia Thameslink, which runs the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern lines, said the new technology has not replaced train conductors, who are still present on trains but no longer able to operate the doors. But unions including RMT argue that the new system is less safe, and could place rail jobs at risk in the future.


During a Public Accounts Committee hearing this week on rail franchising in the UK, DfT’s permanent secretary Bernadette Kelly told MPs: “We didn’t anticipate that this would cause anything like the level of industrial action that it has.”

She said her department had assessed the risks before letting the contract, and had looked at where driver-only operation had been introduced elsewhere on the rail network and been “rolled out relatively smoothly”.

Peter Wilkinson, managing director of passenger services, added that driver-only trains have been in use since the mid-1980s, and the department had good reason to believe that industrial action would be less severe than it was.

He also said the department had tried to engage with unions but this had “proved difficult”.

“I wish we did have better engagement,” Wilkinson said. “We have tried to reach out, that has not been readily accepted. I think we would all like a better dialogue with the trade unions. They play a vitally important role in this industry.”

But Mick Cash, RMT general secretary, told Civil Service World: "It is outrageous for GTR to claim that they have been snubbed by the unions. That is the complete opposite of the truth. RMT has made repeated efforts to engage with Southern Rail and their government pay masters. They have slammed the door in our faces at every opportunity. They should stop spinning and start talking."

The franchise has been subject to two remedial plans and financial penalties, but Govia has retained its contract despite concerns over its failure to offer the government value for money.

Meg Hillier, Labour MP and PAC chair, asked if DfT had considered cancelling the contract because the franchise had become too “toxic”.

Kelly said: “We actually did consider that, we looked at a number of options in the early part of 2017 to determine what was the best way to deliver the best possible outcome for passengers and taxpayers. But the view that we took at that time was actually the sensible way to proceed was to secure a penalty from GTR [Govia Thameslink Railway] and then really to focus minds on driving performance for passengers.”

She added: “There’s been an extremely difficult period on this franchise, but actually what we’re now seeing is sustained improvement on the franchise,” Kelly said.

East Coast mainline

Elsewhere in the hearing, Hillier asked the DfT perm sec if she thought the department’s franchising system was “bust”, given the failures of joint operators, Stagecoach and the Virgin Group, on the East Coast mainline.

Transport secretary Chris Grayling announced last year that their contract would terminate three years early after it was discovered that the private operators had overbid for the contract and were soon to run out of money.

That the franchise has failed twice already, Kelly said, reflects the “particular characteristics” of the line which make it “perhaps more volatile” than others. “We are not seeing franchise failure anywhere else in the system in anything like that regard, so I don’t think it proves the system as a whole has failed,” she said.

Part of the problem was that passenger numbers had been lower than predicted, and Kelly said her department was working to update its methodology to such avoid problems in the future. Wilkinson added that DfT had identified 50-60 factors driving the change in passenger demand on UK railways, including advances in flexible working and a period of relatively low-cost petrol.

He also said the department has made changes to its contracting process, for example to ensure that operators offering an overambitious bid can be excluded in future.

Within the next few months DfT is expected to announce future arrangements for running the service.

The two main options being considered are the current joint operators, Stagecoach and the Virgin Group, continuing to run the line under a short-term, not-for-profit arrangement, or the DfT’s operator of last resort, Directly Operated Railways, taking over the line.

About the author

Tamsin Rutter is senior reporter for Civil Service World and tweets as @TamsinRutter

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