Published: 7th November 2016
Passengers launch petition to force Government to accept passenger representation on franchise train company boards.
Is the customer always right? Not if you are the Department for Transport (DfT) or the Greater Thameslink Railway!
Passengers can make a difference and change DfT rail franchise policy when it goes against the results of its own public consultation. The DfT U-turn came as a result of the very real threat of a Judicial Review made by campaigners on the Isle of Wight. They formed a pressure group called ‘Keep Island Line in the Franchise’ (KILF) to lobby the DfT to keep the loss-making 8.5 mile line running between Ryde and Shanklin in the Southwestern rail franchise.
The policy reversal took KILF a year to achieve from September 2015 when the DfT first announced its plans for Island Line ahead of a public consultation about what passengers would like to see in the next South Western franchise. The consultation specifically singled out Island Line as a loss-making line that needed millions spending on trains and infrastructure. The trains were built in 1938 and the track last re-laid in early 1967 when it was also electrified, and not much work other than storm damage repairs and routine maintenance has been carried out since.
The DfT proposed to start the new franchise in 2017 with Island Line included, but during the franchise lifetime the line should:
….be put on a more sustainable footing for the future…the government expects to ask bidders for the next franchise to help sustain the line while suggesting ideas to turn it into a separate and self-sustaining business during the life of the franchise, with Network Rail responsible for maintaining and improving the infrastructure of the line.
The DfT also said that it expected bidders to develop proposals for how they will reduce the cost of running the line, (which they assert costs £4 million a year to run, against an income of £1 million). The alternative could involve working with the community and stakeholders to set up a social enterprise to take over the running of the line. This view was espoused by the Island’s MP Andrew Turner in October last year and reported by rail.co.uk.
Rail Minister Claire Perry said at the time: “I am determined that residents, employers and tourists on the Isle of Wight will continue to benefit from the service that the Island Line provides. We know that the line is expensive to run and in the current financial climate we need to find ways to bring down the cost to taxpayers, while ensuring that the line continues to meet the needs of the community.
“Giving local people more say over these services is the best way to make this happen. That is why I want to see stakeholders work with the next operator to come up with innovative solutions that will reduce the burden on the public purse, while safeguarding the line for years to come.”
But in the post-consultation publication, despite the DfT saying that Island Line had generated a huge response to the consultation and was overwhelmingly favoured keeping Island Line in the franchise, they decided otherwise.
6.25 The Department wants to see the continuation of passenger services on the Isle of Wight, but in a way that is sustainable in the long-term.
6.26 The franchisee will set up a separate business unit for the operation, with distinct accounting and reporting arrangements. The franchisee will be required to cooperate with the Department, the Isle of Wight Council, Network Rail, and other stakeholders to contribute to the development of any proposals or plans for a more sustainable, long-term Island Line service, as required.
KILF challenged the DfT over this given the consultation results demanded the line remain in the franchise and issued a Letter Before Action threatening a Judicial Review. In response, on 14 September 2016 the DfT emailed KILF’s David Pugh writing:
The Department amended the Island Line franchise objective to clarify a misunderstanding which had arisen around its policy in respect of the Line’s future, and to ensure that it accurately reflected both the franchise specification (included in the ITT) and the Stakeholder Briefing Document. There are no plans to include an explanation of this wording change on the government website as there has been no material change to the franchise specification, or what we have required bidders to include as part of their bids, i.e to work with relevant stakeholders to identify a more sustainable long term solution for the Island Line.
The DfT took a month to amend the change of wording on their website and was carried out with no explanation as to why it had been altered. The wording changed from a "self-sustaining business", to a "more sustainable business".
David Pugh for KILF said: “Helpfully, the DfT letter also makes clear that the Secretary of State has “deliberately not taken any decision now as to whether or not the Line should remain part of the Franchise in the longer term” – whilst also making clear that “another operator running the Line is only one possible outcome of the exploration of options”.
The government also backed setting up a task force, set up by the IOW council, to examine the future of transport across the island headed up by Chris Garnett who headed up the failed GNER franchise and who has advocated turning Island Line into a light rail system.
KILF wrote to Mr Garnett saying “Given that the Rail Minister has agreed that the Taskforce has an important role to play in identifying and delivering the best way of securing the long term sustainability of Island Line, can you confirm that the Taskforce will – under your chairmanship – take an open-minded approach that also considers the merits of Island Line remaining in the wider franchise?
The Task Force is due to report to the Isle of Wight Council by January and the DfT should announce whether Stagecoach or First Group will operate the new franchise by March 2017.
A petition has been launched by LSE Rail’s Chrissie Ashley aimed at getting Chris Grayling, Transport Secretary to allow passenger representation on rail franchise boards. It is called “Representation for Train Operating Companies” and says: We demand that all Train Operating Companies (TOCs) in the UK rail system have mandatory, permanent passenger representation on their boards.
“I have organised this petition to try and make Transport Secretary Chris Grayling aware that the rail companies, especially operated by GTR, are simply not delivering their franchise promises and a reliable passenger service.
The DfT is not interested in talking to us so this is the only way to try and make the politicians take notice of the travelling taxpayers who are paying twice for the poor service. And in the recent Transport Select Committee meeting, a GTR director when asked who his customer was, said, The DfT as their contractual partner with no mention of fare paying passengers. This is unacceptable and I hope that other passengers will sign up to the petition and I can be contacted at Chrissie.email@example.com
TOCs in the UK are very far from delivering a service even close to what the passengers require, and even further from what they have paid for.
A publicly elected commuter on the board of each TOC will ensure that they are forced to see through any promises they make to their passengers and they will be more effectively called to remedy any issues that exist or arise within their franchise.
If the government insist on maintaining the consistently under-performing franchise system, then passenger representation at this level is the only possible way of moving forward. These companies can no longer go on simply paying lip service to the needs and concerns of British commuters whilst making enormous profits from them.
Given the DfT has included passenger representation on a new Southern board to help improve the service, will they be consistent and agree to similar representation in franchises?
• Rail.co.uk asked the DfT three times about potential bidders for the upcoming franchise but they declined to answer.