No justice and no responsibility: exposing the truth about Govia Thameslink Railway

Following our blog post last Thursday, the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) has confirmed GTR’s £5 million fine for its breach of licence relating to passenger information during last year’s May timetable crisis. As a result of our intervention, the final decision was announced on the day of the Williams Rail Review deadline (31st May).

It is the first time the ORR has imposed a fine for breach of licence, meaning that an important new precedent has been set for holding train operating companies to account. Their final penalty notice finds that GTR’s conduct around passenger information was “towards the negligent end of the spectrum” and says that the fine will provide a “transparent signal to the industry” about passenger information standards. After a full review of the documents we’ve discovered that the ORR went forward with this penalty despite submissions from GTR, the Department for Transport, and even Transport Focus, to accept a lower figure.

ORR graphics

After reviewing their final penalty notice, we believe that the ORR has not only succeeded in imposing a precedent-setting fine, but has also chosen to “show its teeth” in an extremely difficult context; where the Department for Transport was already complicit in the failure of GTR’s management contract. Could this decision be a sign that the Office of Rail and Road is getting stronger and fighting for passenger rights while every other rail agency and passenger watchdog is still letting us down?

GTR’s £5 million fine: what went on behind the scenes?

The £5 million fine was announced on 14th March, and followed by a 21 day consultation period, during which the ORR had the power to ‘reduce the fine to zero’ or ‘increase it several fold’ (according to paragraph 139 of their penalties policy).

The ORR had categorised the breach of licence in the ‘moderately serious’ category, and their decision to choose a £5 million ‘starting point’ was also moderate in this context (the ‘moderately serious’ category of offence has a starting point of up to £10 million). During the 21 day consultation period that ran until 5th April, submissions could be made to the ORR in to have the amount reduced, or for the train operating company to make an offer of “reparations”.

GTR completely refused responsibility

GTR made no offer of reparations and maintained the position throughout the consultation that the £5 million penalty should not be imposed at all, and that if it were imposed, that it should be a lower amount. The ORR’s final penalty notice makes clear that GTR has not acknowedged reponsibility:

there is a lack of evidence that GTR undertook a significant lessons learnt exercise relating to passenger information and have focused instead on the wider industry failings. GTR have not acknowledged responsibility for its failure to provide adequate information to passengers.” (paragraph 39)

The only other submission within the consultation period was made four days before the consultation deadline by Transport Focus, who encouraged the ORR to consider an offer of reparations, “assuming an offer is put forward”. As GTR had not made any offer of reparations, the ORR judged Transport Focus’ submissions to be ‘inapplicable’.

The Department for Transport supported Govia Thameslink Railway

The ORR’s final penalty notice also shows the Department for Transport advocating on GTR’s behalf. After news broke of GTR’s £15 million “fine” for the 2018 timetable collapse in December, the DfT wrote to the ORR suggesting they show restraint in imposing any penalty. They said in the letter that they had already “entered into an agreement” that GTR would “make an additional £15 million available” to “develop and implement initiatives” that would benefit GTR passengers.

After December’s letter, the ORR asked the DfT to further explain December’s £15 million “fine”. In a further letter on 20th February 2019, the DfT said the following.

“On the level of the fund I suspect all we could say is that we took all the facts and circumstances into account including the level of the previous payment made by GTR in relation to the 2016 problems on Southern, the desire to create a fund which could provide meaningful benefits for passengers and the financial position of the TOC: pointing out that with the fund set at this level GTR will make no profit at all this year in recognition of their role in the disruption.” (paragraph 59)

Considering the full history of the management contract between the DfT and GTR – especially the fact that the Department had already allowed GTR to buy out their liability for the timetable collapse – it is not clear whether this was in fact a “fine” or simply a “fund”, ie. just another “remedial measure” of the kind that the DfT has been making since 2016 to bolster the GTR contract – and with zero scrutiny.

What is the Passenger Benefit Fund?

Here’s the part where it gets interesting in relation to ongoing passenger information issues. Many commuters have expressed outrage about the £15 million ‘Passenger Benefit Fund’ posters that they have started to see all over the GTR network; which state that “GTR is contributing £15 million in tangible passenger benefits” and completely erases the true history of the company’s failure, without even a hint of an apology. It is clear to us that the advertising materials are an attempt to derive PR value and ‘reputational capital’ from what is essentially a false political communication in a public space. Several of us have already reported this issue to the Advertising Standards Authority, and we encourage you to join us by submitting your own complaint.

And after reading the ORR’s final penalty notice last Friday, it seems the situation is even worse than we thought:

  • “As for the Passenger Benefits Fund, ORR notes that it has not been provided with a copy of the agreement between GTR and DfT pursuant to which the fund was set up or any clear explanation of its purpose and scope.” (paragraph 58)
  • “ORR have become aware of a new website that has been set up in recent weeks in relation to the Passenger Benefits Fund which sets out how the funding will be allocated to the stations affected and how passengers can propose local or wider passenger benefit schemes. Under “wider passenger benefit schemes”, the site suggests some examples of possible schemes that would lead to passenger information improvements.” (paragraph 62)
  • “ORR recognises that the operation of the fund could result in some improvement to the provision of passenger information at specific stations (e.g. an additional CIS screen,) but only if a significant proportion of passengers support such an improvement. Further,it is not sufficiently clear whether the fund will go towards making passenger information improvements for it to have any, or any significant, weight in the penalty assessment. Finally, it is in any event highly doubtful whether any such forward-looking information improvements as may be brought about by the fund would constitute “reparations” to those who were affected by the breach [of passenger information rules].” (paragraph 63)

Join us to make an unstoppable passenger watchdog:

Since the start of their disastrous management contract in 2015, no existing watchdog has been good enough to represent passengers’ interests on GTR, or ensure accountability. The ORR’s final penalty notice shows that the Department for Transport is, even now, advocating on GTR’s behalf, and proves that oversight is urgently required on the Passenger Benefit Fund.

As always, we have noone to rely on but ourselves – a grass roots network of passengers. If you’re as shocked as we are about the standards of dishonest communication on our railways, then please make a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority and include a link to this blog post. Please also do all you can to alert press, local councillors and MPs, as very little of this story is reaching the mainstream media.

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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