The Department for Transport has announced that it is extending Southeastern’s franchise until 1 April 2020 and has cancelled the franchise competition to find a new operator.
This is the latest extension for the train operator. Back in April 2019, discussions took place with a view to extending the exiting franchise from 23 June to 10 November 2019, with an option for a further extension until April 2020.
In fact, the Southeastern franchise has never been re-let since the current operator – London & South Eastern Railway Limited, a subsidiary of Govia, which is itself owned by Go-Ahead and Keolis – took it over on 1 April 2006. The franchise was due to end on 31 March 2014. However, after the franchising process was called into question with the cancellation of the West Coast competition in 2012, the Southeastern franchise was first extended by direct award until June 2018, then to December 2018, and to June 2019, then November 2019, and now (finally?) until 1 April 2020.
The plan is that the Government will then operate the services directly from April next year until it decides what to do.
Much of this indecision is to do with the franchising process and problems with the railway pension fund. This has a deficit of £7.5 billion and the government wants to fill it by getting the money from the franchises (60 per cent) and their employees (40 per cent).
Unsurprisingly, the railway operators aren’t keen on this. Stagecoach refused to play along, which led to its ‘non-compliant’ franchise bids being turned down for West Coast, East Midlands and South Eastern.
Now Stagecoach is suing the Government as, supposedly, is Abellio, which formed part of the third bid for South Eastern, in collaboration with JR East and Mitsui. So, the whole process has fallen apart.
While, on the face of it, Southeastern will now be operating until April next year, the company will still lose the franchise once the Government takes over.
Go-Ahead chief executive David Brown said of the situation: “A lot of hard work was put into a strong bid that would have built upon the achievements of Southeastern in recent years in improving performance and customer satisfaction, delivering more capacity and investment.
“Whilst we’re disappointed that our original bid is not being taken forward, we will engage with the DfT on next steps.”
Southeastern’s managing director David Statham added: “We’re proud to have delivered more than £80 million of improvements for passengers since we began a new direct award contract in 2014.
“Punctuality has improved by nearly 10 per cent in two years, we’ve introduced free Wi-Fi on our trains and boosted capacity on board with 5,000 extra seats.
“Over this next extension period, our focus remains squarely on our passengers, delivering more improvements and continuing to improve the punctuality and reliability of our services.”
Southeastern’s passengers are concerned at the delay in confirming a new franchise. David Sidebottom, director of independent watchdog Transport Focus, commented: “Southeastern passengers will be disappointed to hear that the promise of improvements to their journeys have been put back again, and will expect greater progress to follow from the Williams Rail Review.
“Passengers told Transport Focus that they want to see improvements in more punctual, reliable services with enough room to sit and stand. Passengers also want the next franchise operator to deal with delays more effectively when things go wrong.
“Passengers will now want a dependable plan, setting out exactly when they see the promised benefits.”
Predictably, the unions aren’t happy either. The RMT has already threatened to strike if any further pension contributions are taken from its members. Now, general secretary Mick Cash has declared: “The cancellation of the competition for the Southeastern franchise shows yet again that the whole privatised rail system is broken and coming apart at the seams. The chaos of short-term extensions to get the Government off the hook is a measure of just how rotten their rail policies are.
“You cannot run a serious and reliable rail service on the hoof and yet that is what the Government are doing and passengers paying a small fortune to travel on the Southeastern services will be rightly outraged.
“The only viable alternative to this nonsense is public ownership and that is exactly the model that the Williams Review has explicitly ruled out. “
The story will no doubt continue…