DfT publishes Gibb report into Southern Railway woes
Transport secretary Chris Grayling insists services are improving and some recommendations are already being implemented
Chris Grayling Credit: PA
A government-commissioned report on resolving the chaos on the Southern Railway network recommended cutting at least one service from the operator's franchise, electrifying another route and selling off Gatwick Airport station, it has emerged.
The report, by independent rail expert Chris Gibb, was delivered to the Department for Transport in December last year, but kept from the public until today.
Transport secretary Chris Grayling said the document – and the government’s response – had originally been scheduled for publication in April but were delayed because of prime minister Theresa May’s decision to call a snap general election.
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Gibb’s review found that industrial action on the part of the RMT and ASLEF unions was “undermining the system” and was the primary cause of disruption faced by passengers last year.
However, his report underscored the multiple challenges faced within the Govia Thameslink Railway franchise, which combines Southern Railway, Thameslink, and Gatwick Express services, and is currently working around complex station infrastructure upgrades and operational changes.
“No element of the system is perfect, and it can all improve,” he said.
“But I am convinced by what I have seen that if the traincrew were to work in the normal manner that they have in previous years, the output of the system, a safe and reliable rail service for passengers, would be delivered in an acceptable manner, which would be similar to other commuter rail services in the south east.”
Gibb – a former Virgin Trains managing director and no non-executive director at Network Rail – questioned whether government intervention to take back control of the GTR franchise would resolve the issues the service faced.
Nevertheless his review made detailed recommendations for rolling stock changes and systems alterations.
Among them were the transfer of East Croydon-to-Milton Keynes services to Transport for London, the electrification of the Uckfield line, the introduction of an off-peak service buffer zone to ensure trains were ready for the evening rush hour, and the sale of Gatwick Airport Station to the airport operating company.
The last move is aimed at giving the airport operator control of upgrade work at the station needed to provide additional concourse and platform capacity.
Gibb said he was not convinced that re-nationalising the franchise – a solution sought by some last year – would help in delivering solutions to some of the problems faced by the network.
He told Grayling that as the franchise was “not in a steady state” there would be a risk of “a hiatus” in the ongoing change programmes if the current agreement was terminated.
Responding to the report, Grayling said work was already under way to deliver on some of its recommendations, while others required “further work and assessment” from the rail industry.
“This reflects the fact that his role was never to set out detailed business cases for particular initiatives, or determine the impacts on public spending,” the transport secretary said.
“In many respects, Chris Gibb’s advice aligns with the direction I want the industry to take as rail travel increases.
“Passenger journeys on Southern’s major routes into London have doubled in the last 12 years. I wish to say directly to those passengers – while I am pleased performance is improving – I understand that last year you were let down by train services that simply were not good enough.
“We took steps to improve compensation, but ultimately we need services that meet your expectations – for reliability, safety, comfort, cleanliness, and value for money – and I am determined to take the necessary steps to deliver needed improvements.
RMT general secretary Mick Cash said the report underscored that Grayling had been determining the “strategic direction of the dispute” with the union and ASLEF, which is focused on the safety of driver-only operated services.
“GTR should be stripped of the franchise with the whole lot taken into public ownership,” he said.
ASLEF general secretary Mick Whelan said the Gibb report noted that no single party was responsible for Southern’s performance.
“He’s right: It’s a combination of the Department for Transport and GTR/Southern deliberately provoking an industrial dispute,” he said.
“I agree with Chris’s analysis that a lack of system integrity alongside a lack of leadership and strategy have contributed to the performance failures.”
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