Five reasons why justice HAS NOT been done on Govia Thameslink Railway.

Justice has not been done on the disastrous Thameslink, Southern, and Great Northern management contract. This blog explains the problems we’ve encountered with transparency and accountability in the UK rail system and will form part of our submission to the Williams Rail Review.

1. The Office of Rail and Road has not confirmed GTR’s £5 million fine

On 14th March, the ORR announced a £5 million fine of Govia Thameslink Railway for breaking rules on passenger information at the time of the May 2018 timetable collapse. It was the first time the regulator had issued a fine for breach of licence, and GTR had 21 days to respond to the penalty.

It is now two and a half months later and we are still waiting for a final decision from the ORR. As GTR passengers, we are calling on the ORR to act decisively and fine GTR at least the full £5 million, which we understand can be ‘reduced to zero’ or ‘increased several fold’ during the consultation period (according to paragraph 139 of their penalties policy.)

During the May timetable collapse one year ago, we questioned GTR on their lack of route-trained drivers as early as 9th May 2018, and called on the ORR to intervene urgently in GTR on 6th May 2018. We also took the reason for GTR’s failure to the press on 20th May 2018 (the day of the timetable collapse) and continued to advocate for the truth to come out despite GTR’s attempts to suppress vital passenger information in that period.

When GTR’s own passengers can beat the press and even the government rail regulator to the truth – you know you have a problem.

[Update: on 31st May, one day after the publication of this blog and on the day of the Williams Rail Review deadline, the ORR confirmed GTR’s full £5 million fine.]

2. The NAO investigation into Peter Wilkinson is incomplete

Peter Wilkinson is the MD of Passenger Services, making him one of the most powerful civil servants at the Department for Transport. A Guardian expose in January 2017 triggered a National Audit Office investigation into his alleged conflict of interest regarding the award of the Thameslink Southern and Great Northern (TSGN) contract to GTR in 2014. In October of that year, we got hold of a copy of the NAO investigation report and published it on our website, here.

The NAO admitted finding ‘weaknesses’ in the Department for Transport’s controls for conflicts of interests in the civil service. However, they did not return to the topic, nor report the conclusion of their investigation into Peter Wilkinson’s alleged conflicts of interest in their January 2018 report on the TSGN franchise.

3. Crucial reports remain buried

Appendix Nine of the 2017 Gibb report on Southern Rail remains buried by the government, despite making crucial recommendations about the future of the failed TSGN management contract. Our most recent FOI request for Appendix Nine was declined by the Department for Transport. Without the details of this report being known, it is impossible to know which parts of Chris Gibb’s advice was ignored by the Department or Transport; and therefore impossible to fully explore who bears responsibility for the timetable crisis.

Another crucial buried report is the Steer Davies Gleave report on driver only operation, which we believe to be the basis for the entire ‘DOO’ project – and therefore the three-year industrial dispute. We believe that this report relates to passenger behaviour at the platorm train interface, and that its contents could have a negative impact on disabled access rights. Few documents are so clearly in the public interest, and yet this report is being held back by the Rail Delivery Group, which is not subject to freedom of information legislation.

4. The cause of the 2016 ‘Southern Rail Crisis’ was never identified

The 2016 ‘Southern Rail Crisis’ will be remembered well by GTR commuters, especially those who lost their jobs, or had to relocate – with an average of 160 trains per day being fully or partially cancelled that year. By September 2016, we’d had enough, and 2,000 of us raised £50,000 to take the Department for Transport to the high court. The case for a Judicial Review was heard in June 2017, and the Judge gave the DfT two weeks to decide on the penalty for GTR’s appalling performance.

The DfT announced a £13.4 million fine of GTR on the day of the two week deadline, and thus satisfied the Judge that a decision had been taken. This meant that they avoided a Judicial Review, which would have allowed the examination of claims such as the ‘sickness strikes’ – a claim widely relied upon by GTR and the DfT to blame the company’s failure on ‘unofficial industrial action’ by trade unions. Six months later, a Channel Four Fact Check found that there were ‘no statistics for Chris Grayling’s claims over rail unions.’

5. Govia Thameslink Railway bought out their liability for performance

In our court case of June 2017, the DfT claimed that their decision on GTR’s performance breaches had been ‘imminent’. But in January 2018’s NAO report we discovered that the £13.4 million penalty that enabled the DfT to avoid our Judicial Review had in fact been the result of a ‘fast-moving negotiation and ‘verbal decisions’ made by the acting director general for rail, and the MD of passenger services (Peter Wilkinson).

And there was a worse discovery still – £10 million of the fine was part of a deal done with GTR where they would buy out their liability for performance up until September 2018 – a whole fifteen months into the future. This troubling precedent became a harsh reality after the May 2018 timetable collapse – as this in theory meant that the DfT no longer had any legal basis to strip GTR of the TSGN contract. As a result, all we can say for sure is that any fine imposed on GTR for the May 2018 timetable collapse is the result of a narrow range of ‘performance levers’ left available to the Department for Transport after their unprecedented deal for the buyout of future performance liability.

Our submission to the Williams Rail Review is coming soon! It covers the full GTR story and will explain all the barriers to justice and accountability that we’ve encountered throughout this investigation. If you would like to help us, please donate here.

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