A crowdfunded legal action launches today to take the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern rail franchise back into public ownership. Campaign group Bring Back British Rail will challenge the government’s plans to award a new six-year contract to Govia Thameslink Railway, and demand transparency over the alleged £25 million fraud by Govia subsidiary, London and Southeastern Railway.
The action is the latest stage in Bring Back British Rail’s CrowdJustice legal fund, which had its first victory in 2018 when the East Coast Main Line was brought back into public ownership as LNER. We’re pleased to be collaborating on their new case; along with our experienced team at Devonshires Solicitors, who represented our 2017 legal challenge against the Department for Transport.
Read more about Bring Back British Rail’s legal action, and please donate if you can.
Why is this action necessary?
The Southeastern rail franchise was renationalised in October, after the Department for Transport uncovered an alleged £25 million fraud by London and Southeastern Railway (LSER). Despite the seriousness of the allegations, the government is now considering awarding a new six-year contract to Govia’s other subsidiary, Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), at the end of March.
In a recent letter to the Transport Select Committee, rail minister Chris Heaton-Harris implied that LSER’s actions involved long-running and active deceit since 2014. He stated that the company ‘did not act transparently and in good faith’ and ‘concealed the money owed through financial reporting over several years’. DfT civil servants began asking questions in March 2020, but even then LSER continued to ‘minimise the risk of detection by the Department’.
Transport Minister, Grant Shapps, has stated that there is ‘clear, compelling and serious evidence’ that LSER ‘breached good faith’ with the government. And yet, the Department for Transport has allowed Govia’s owning groups, Go-Ahead and Keolis, to run the fraud investigation themselves, along with Deloitte (Go-Ahead’s external auditor since 2015). The investigation has been conducted under conditions of strict commercial confidentiality and our initial legal inquiries have found that the DfT never intends to release this report to the public.
We believe the investigation is highly compromised, and it’s clear that it has already hit the rocks. The Go-Ahead Group has now admitted to ‘serious errors’ and just had to delay their accounts for the second time this year, reportedly due to Deloitte refusing to sign them off. Meanwhile, their rail operations are hanging by a thread, with trading in shares suspended, and huge losses in Germany and Norway.
A staggering 90% of the Go-Ahead Group’s revenue is guaranteed by public contracts. They are the largest bus operator in London and operate around 11% of the UK’s regional bus market. In addition to the GTR contract renewal, the Go-Ahead Group is soon set to sign new ‘Enhanced Partnership’ bus agreements with local authorities all over the UK. After receiving bus and rail bailouts totalling hundreds of millions during the covid pandemic, it is now crucial to determine whether they can be trusted with any more public money.
What happens next?
Bring Back British Rail’s legal team will shortly begin official correspondence with the Department for Transport to demand full transparency on the Southeastern investigation, and determine the extent to which owning groups, Go-Ahead and Keolis, are implicated in the alleged fraud.
They will argue that Govia, the Go-Ahead Group and Keolis should be heavily penalised for any involvement in fraudulent activities, and that public ownership is the best solution for Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern.
In the event that a new contract is awarded to Govia Thameslink Railway, the lawyers will consider whether this can be challenged by judicial review.
Stay tuned for further updates, including the first official legal correspondence, due for publication next week.