Major class action lawsuit to go forward against Southeastern and South Western rail franchises

A £93 million class action lawsuit against the Southeastern and South Western rail franchises will proceed to trial at the Competition Appeal Tribunal. The long-awaited permission for the ‘boundary fares’ case was granted on Tuesday, and it’s likely to lead to further lawsuits against the railway’s complex fares system.

The ‘Boundary Fares’ Case

The claim relates to an alleged ‘abuse of market dominance’ by Southeastern and South Western, in failing to make cheaper ‘boundary fares’ available to London Travelcard holders. It argues that the train operators have been overcharging passengers who travel outside the Zone 6 boundary; effectively charging double for the portion of the journey already covered by their Travelcard. The claim for damages goes back to 2015 and includes: The Go-Ahead Group/Keolis (Southeastern); First/MTR (South Western Railway); and Stagecoach (South West Trains).

Claimant Justin Gutmann and his legal team have waited over two and a half years for the ‘Collective Proceedings Order’ (CPO), after a similar case against Mastercard caused long delays to the process. The Merricks vs Mastercard case was granted a CPO in August, making it the first ever US-style class action lawsuit to go forward in the UK – and clearing the way for a much faster process in future.

The ‘boundary fares’ class action has long been considered to be a test case for consumer rights on the railway, and the CPO announcement is sure to send shockwaves throughout the industry. Though this particular case is confined to the Southeastern and South Western rail franchises, the issue of ‘boundary fares’ relates to multiple train operating companies running out of London; presenting a further risk of litigation in this area alone.

The Govia Thameslink Railway Case

The new legal cases are ‘opt-out’ class actions, first made possible in the UK by the Consumer Rights Act 2015. Previously, such cases took place on an ‘opt-in’ basis, requiring the sign up of a group of claimants. Now, it’s possible to undertake an action on behalf of a prospective class, where passengers will be included by default and entitled to compensation if the case is successful.

A second rail fare lawsuit of this kind was launched in July against Govia Thameslink Railway and is now awaiting the Competition Appeal Tribunal’s decision on whether to grant a CPO. GTR is the only train company in the UK to have ‘sub brands’ within the same company, and the case alleges that it has used Southern Rail, Gatwick Express and Thameslink to ‘unlawfully’ control ticket options on the Brighton main line.

GTR recently commented on the claim:

“We dispute the allegation that we have breached competition law, and do not believe the claim should be allowed to proceed. We work in a highly regulated industry and fully comply with the terms of our franchise agreement with the Department for Transport. We will make our submissions to the tribunal in due course.”

Their statement raises wider questions about the government’s responsibility in these cases. For example; if GTR were only ‘complying with the terms of their franchise agreement’, could the taxpayer be left on the hook for potential damages?

Government failure on rail fare reform

The government’s promises on rail fare reform go back seven years, and yet they have repeatedly failed to fix our broken system. Initially, they delegated the task to the Rail Delivery Group (Association of Train Operating Companies Ltd.), who were supposed to reform Britain’s notoriously complex rail fare system while keeping it ‘revenue neutral’. After this attempt failed, further promises were made by the ‘Williams Rail Review’; which has yet to produce any detail on fare reform, despite being underway for three years already.

Serious questions must be raised about the government’s failure to act on fare reform, and to what extent they might have exposed the taxpayer to liability. Legal commentators note that the new class action regime is ‘potentially franchise-ending territory’ – but who will be footing the bill? And how much will this new legal pressure add to the contractual risks around covid ‘emergency contracts’ – as highlighted in a recent report by the Public Accounts Committee?

Most importantly of all, when will passengers finally get the simple, fair and affordable ticketing system they deserve? The controversy around ‘boundary fares’ and GTR ‘sub brands’ will come as no surprise to commuters on these services, many of whom have been complaining about these issues for years. It should not take class action lawsuits to finally put them under the spotlight.

Further Information

Boundary Fares:

  • Justin Gutmann v London & South Eastern Railway LimitedCase history including CPO Judgement (19/10/2021)
  • Justin Gutmann v First MTR South Western Trains Limited and AnotherCase history including CPO Judgement (19/10/2021)

Govia Thameslink Railway:

  • David Courtney Boyle & Edward John Vermeer v Govia Thameslink Railway Limited & OthersApplication for Collective Proceedings Order, 27/07/2021

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