The Great British Rip-Off: Why the Williams-Shapps Plan will fail to deliver

Despite four years work on the Williams-Shapps Plan, the government has failed to come up with any credible answers for the complete market failure of the railway.

Its promise that Great British Railways (GBR) will be an integrated guiding mind “maximising social and economic value in the public interest” is fundamentally unachievable while privatisation remains in place.

Grant Shapps knows this. That’s why he’s deciding the future of essential passenger services such as fares, ticketing, staffing and station management in backroom talks with private train companies; exempting these areas from consultation. Meanwhile, the Williams-Shapps Plan offers a set of incoherent legislative proposals, which fail to clarify which essential services will be run by GBR; and which will remain in the hands of train companies.

The Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail consultation is clear about just one thing – the reasons for market failure. In the government’s own terms, this has been caused by: 1. Moral Hazard – where profit motivations conflict with the public interest, also known as “perverse incentives”; and 2. Information Failure – where inferior decisions are made due to fragmentation and lack of accountability.

However, both of these problems are certain to remain. Here’s why the Williams-Shapps Plan will fail to deliver:

1. Competition law prevents integration

While rail privatisation remains, the restrictions of competition law will permanently prevent the integration of cross-industry functions such as timetabling, ticketing and passenger data. Competition law also requires a ‘level playing field’, meaning that decisions must not cause an adverse financial impact to private train companies.

The Williams-Shapps plan has failed to find a solution for ‘track access’, the process by which train companies negotiate their use of the timetable. The government has suggested a slightly heavier weighting on public interest factors when timetabling, but this suggestion is likely to be impossible under competition law. Integration will be impossible, with timetabling dominated by private interests, thus minimising the influence of devolved and regional governments.

As the ORR has emphasised in its new consultation response, the government’s proposals actually unleash even more competition concerns, likely to conflict with multiple existing regulations. It even suggests that GBR might have to be split into two distinct parts – to avoid the possibility of breaching competition law by collaborating across retail and operations within itself.

2. Incoherent legislation will prevent reform

Given the undisputable fact that privatisation leads to market failure, the government wants to amend the Railways Act 1993 to make it easier for ‘direct awards’ to publicly-owned operators when private companies fail. However, it wants publicly-owned operators to remain banned from actually competing for contracts because the better value they provide is seen as an ‘unfair advantage’ over private train companies.

The government also wants to retain EU Regulation 1370/2007; making it easier to navigate issues around state aid. These changes are welcome and could greatly increase the ability of local and national governments to directly award contracts to publicly owned companies. However, this approach is logically in conflict with the Bus Services Act 2017, which bans municipal ownership and severely limits the powers of local authorities to regulate their buses. Unless these changes are taken together holistically, it will be impossible to achieve integrated, multi-modal travel across bus and rail.

Finally, the government wants to sign up to the Luxembourg Rail Protocol; a way of liberalising and globalising the Rolling Stock Companies (ROSCOs), making it easier for the big banks to get involved. However, the leasing of trains under the ROSCO system is already one of the most dysfunctional areas of the railway; as well as the biggest site of profit leakage.

3. Accessibility proposals will fail to deliver

According to the submission made by the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC), the government’s proposals will be “insufficient to achieve real cultural change.” The government had previously ignored DPTAC’s recommendation for a £6 billion investment for full station accessibility by 2060, offering just a ‘nationwide station audit’ instead.

Last week, we published a confidential DPTAC report that suggests investment in station accessibility is being jeopardised by the “perverse incentives” of train operators. It is important to note that publicly-owned operators such as LNER are directly subject to the public sector equality duty, whereas private operators are not.

One positive suggestion in the Williams-Shapps plan is to expand the role of DPTAC, which has proved itself to be a competent and independent advisor to the government; never failing to oppose “toxic” and “illegal” policies of railway destaffing. However, there is now an urgent need to ensure DPTAC is sufficiently resourced to guarantee its independence, and has clear guidelines around its publishing and transparency policies. This is the only way to avoid the potential for political interference – especially in relation to the controversy around railway destaffing.

4. Passenger representation – a new role for Transport Focus

The Williams-Shapps Plan suggests that all passenger representation should be conducted by Transport Focus, part of a planned expansion of the organisation. Though it is an excellent research organisation, Transport Focus does not have the independence or credibility required to perform the function of a “passenger champion”; especially as relates to its new role representing disabled passengers. The inflation of Transport Focus to perform all of these vital roles appears to be a quick and cheap way to tick the ‘passenger rights’ boxes without any real consideration of what it would take to gain passengers’ trust and actual representation within the railway.

We Own It and Bring Back British Rail have published an excellent guide to the consultation, which calls for a ‘passenger board’ including representatives from every region of the country, as well as rail workers. Such a model is common in Europe and would greatly increase passenger involvement and trust.

How to respond to the consultation

The Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail consultation closes at midnight tonight, and we urgently need your help. The online response form is complicated, but the information in this blog, plus this excellent guide from We Own It, should help you to demand public ownership with just 15 minutes of your time.

Despite four years work on ‘reinventing the wheel’ of railway privatisation, the government has: 1. Failed to consider public ownership and 2. Failed to provide any proper economic analysis or predictions in support of its plans.

It’s vital to demand that legislative changes work holistically, creating the conditions necessary to “maximise social and economic value” – only possible under public ownership. However, legislative changes alone will not be enough. We’re also demanding a new ‘public sector value test’ to enshrine the benefits of: economic and social value, levelling-up, equality, decarbonisation and modal shift as determining factors in all government contracting decisions. These aims should never be compromised by competition law, especially the duty to avoid ‘financial impact’ on operators.

Any private train companies continuing to operate on the British railway must at minimum be treated as public sector bodies, and made subject to the Freedom of Information Act and the public sector equality duty – as the publicly-owned operators are already.

For more information: contact@abcommuters.com

EXCLUSIVE: ‘Rail Workforce Reform Case Study’ proves economic value of railway staffing

A groundbreaking new report on ‘Rail Workforce Reform’ has concluded that inadequate railway staffing is undermining the value of billions of public investments. It also finds that destaffing policies are creating “perverse incentives” for train operators; jeopardising further investment in station accessibility and step-free access.

The confidential report was drafted in February 2022 by the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC): statutory advisors on accessibility to the Department for Transport (DfT). DPTAC has been warning the government about the “toxic combination of driver-only operation and unstaffed stations” since 2016; insisting that railway destaffing breaches multiple areas of equality law.

DPTAC’s new report uses the ‘Sutton loop’ in South London as a case study to “provide real-world examples of the consequences of policy options” as well as analysing the “current and future impact of staff roles and availability”. Its groundbreaking conclusions on financial impact represent a whole new economic argument for the full staffing of Britain’s railways.

“The toxic combination of driver-only operation and unstaffed stations”

The “Rail Workforce Reform Case Study – Sutton Loop” assessed 20 stations served by the Thameslink (GTR) service from London Blackfriars to Sutton. 11 of these stations also have regular services on other routes, provided by Southern (GTR), South Western and Southeastern. Except for South Western, all services are driver-only operated, so boarding assistance is entirely dependent on station-based staff. The report concludes that:

“Assistance and/or auxiliary aids cannot routinely be provided at all times trains are running, at 14 of 20 stations on the Study Route, even if requested in advance – and certainly not on a ‘turn up and go’ basis…. It is clear that the current staffing levels on this route are completely inadequate to deliver an accessible railway, and to ensure disabled people can use train services on the same terms as other passengers….As things stand, the toxic combination of Driver Only Operated (DOO) trains and unstaffed stations means many disabled people are excluded from using the route to access employment, services, leisure and health facilities.”

Of the 20 stations on the Study Route, 10 have no step-free access from street to platform; and only 5 have step-free access to modern standards (consistent with the national situation.) Only London Blackfriars has level access between the train and platform, so wheelchair users rely on a staff member for boarding assistance at every other station on the route. DPTAC concludes that:

“The ability of staff to provide assistance is the only effective way of mitigating the continued partial physical inaccessibility of many of the stations on the loop, which will take many years to address fully. However, the toxic combination of inadequate station staffing and Driver Only Operated trains in particular, undermines the ability of staff to mitigate physical inaccessibility on a reliable basis, and leads directly to the exclusion of disabled people from the Study Route.”

Railway destaffing undermines the value of investments

The Sutton Loop is part of the Thameslink network, which has received over £6 billion in public investment since 2009, as part of the ‘Thameslink Programme.’ This includes a fleet of modern, accessible Class 700 trains; and platform-train level access at London Blackfriars and St. Pancras. DPTAC argues that railway destaffing has devalued these accessibility investments: as well as over a hundred million invested in 30 other stations directly served by the Study Route stations; and indirect implications for multi-billion investments on the wider network.

“A current lack of adequate staffing renders much of the Study Route inaccessible to many disabled people for much of the time, significantly undermining the investment in accessibility already made, depriving rail of an important market, and perpetuating the exclusion of many disabled people from a vital public service to the detriment of both their lives and the wider economy.

It is impossible to divorce consideration of operating costs from the return on investment in station infrastructure…any reduction in staffing then has the potential to undermine the business case for future investment in accessible facilities, where these are dependent on staff presence – as by definition their benefit reduces as staffing reduces. It may also undermine the willingness of rail management to seek accessibility improvements.”

DPTAC suggests that further investment in station accessibilty is already being jeopardised due to this conflict of interest; recommending that the short to medium term priority is to ensure there are no “perverse incentives” for train operators that would discourage the development of step-free access schemes.

DPTAC’s recommendations:

DPTAC’s “Rail Workforce Reform Case Study” concludes that:

“The benefits of staff presence are widespread and include not only the provision of assistance, but e.g.: personal security reassurance; ensuring toilets and waiting rooms are available; provision of information; and management of disruption etc. Poor staffing levels are likely to suppress demand at a time when the success of the rail nework depends on attracting more customers.

“Any reductions in current staffing levels will result in the Study Route becoming even less accessible with both direct (e.g. the provision of assistance) and indirect (e.g. the opening times of waiting rooms) impacts on accessibility.

“Such reductions in accessibilty will undermine (and in some cases virtually eliminate) the benefit of both previous and potential future investment in the physical accessibility of stations and rail vehicles, and of connecting accessible transport modes…Until radical improvements in physical accessibility can be implemented, staff will remain the key way of ensuring that accessibility is maximised.”

The Rail Workforce Reform Case Study was released to us via a Freedom of Information request. For more information: contact@abcommuters.com

The Great British Cover-Up: What Grant Shapps is hiding about the future of the railways

While everyone’s talking about the Tory leadership contest and RMT industrial action, we’re about to lose our last chance to save Britain’s railway from its most dangerous privatisation project yet.

A government consultation on the new public body Great British Railways– including major changes to legislation – is about to be rushed through without any public awareness. It’s a key part of the government’s secret plan to cut billions in public spending, including a massive destaffing project allegedly involving the closure of every ticket office in England.

Today, we’ve demanded that Grant Shapps extends the 4th August deadline and starts publicly promoting the consultation – in a joint letter with campaign group Bring Back British Rail. The consultation is far too short for a holiday period and has been completely hidden from view by the “National Headquarters Competition for GBR”. If he refuses, the Williams-Shapps Plan will lose even more credibility with the public.

However, this is only the first of the weaknesses in the consultation. The private rail industry has been in backroom talks with the government for months; making vital decisions on all the most important areas affecting passengers.  Most of these areas – such as timetabling, fares, and accessibility – have been exempted from the consultation (2.14) and are being negotiated as part of a market engagement process with train companies. They are now set to be decided without any public input whatsoever.

Screenshot of a Sunday Times headline: Secret plan to close all railway ticket offices as strikes grip Britain
This Sunday Times article was deleted after it went viral. View the archived version here.

Great British Railways and the public-private power struggle:

Beginning in 2018, the purpose of the Williams-Shapps review was to fix the fragmentation that caused the nationwide timetable collapse of that year. The process has concluded that the railway experienced complete market failure; caused by the perverse incentives of private companies within the system.

Consequently, the main commitment of the 2021 Williams-Shapps White Paper was to bring all “critical cross-industry functions” under a new public body, Great British Railways, including: timetable planning, fares and ticketing, open data, and station management. This commitment requires the removal of the operational role of the Rail Delivery Group, which currently controls the National Rail Enquiries ticketing system and many other cross-industry functions – as well as acting as a powerful trade association for private companies.

In October 2021, a secret market engagement process began, to decide the details of the new style of GBR contract – Passenger Service Contracts (PSCs). The Rail Delivery Group simultaneously published their own report on behalf of the private train companies; demanding that GBR should be scaled down to set only “base level requirements” and that train operators should retain most of their critical cross-industry functions, including: “active or leading roles in all three phases of the timetable specification;” key roles in marketing and ticket retailing; maximum autonomy over fare pricing; and the commercial and operational management of stations.

Essential passenger services are now under greater threat than ever, and all the details of these policies have been hidden from public view.

  1. Fare Reform

There has been no proper consultation on rail fare reform for Great British Railways. A major ‘Pay As You Go’ smart-ticketing consultation was held in 2019, but this never reported to the public. Nor was there any consultation behind Great British Railway’s first policy rollout – ‘flexi-tickets’, launched in June 2021. The Department for Transport even ignored their own focus group research, which shows a strongly adverse reaction to the flexi policy they eventually chose – giving just a 5% discount on the price of a daily ticket.

A ‘formal one-year review’ of the flexi-ticket scheme is currently underway, but this is being hidden from the public due to train companies’ demands for commercial confidentiality. For the same reason, the Rail Delivery Group refuses to release any flexi-ticket sales data, despite the scheme being a government policy and fully funded by the taxpayer.

Most shockingly of all, the Rail Delivery Group has been put in charge of implementing a whole new smart ticketing system on behalf of Great British Railways.

2. Accessibility

Disabled people’s equal right to travel has been under threat for years, due to a compromised relationship between government and industry in which they have secretly developed long-term destaffing programs – previously revealed by whistleblowers on this website. The plan to close every ticket office in England is the latest example of this cover-up.

The Williams-Shapps Plan’s proposals for accessibility have never been consulted on, and essential advice from the government’s accessibility advisors has been ignored. The National Disability Strategy was recently declared unlawful by the high court for its failure to properly consult, and it seems that many of the same weaknesses are now being repeated in the Williams-Shapps consultation.

3. Workers’ rights

Currently, Grant Shapps refuses to step in on the strikes, and the blame for the industrial relations crisis has landed on the government. But this does not mean that the private rail industry is any more sympathetic. As reported in The Times, the industry is pushing for ‘minimum service levels’ legislation; which would virtually end the effectiveness of industrial action and trade union negotiating power.

In its lobbying on Passenger Services Contracts, the Rail Delivery Group has said that the industry wants more control over stations, and the development of automation technologies.  One of their central demands is for the new contracts to directly incentivise them to cut costs – which will ensure permanent conflict in industrial relations, with the government continuing to negotiate by proxy.

What happens next?

We are still only scratching the surface of the ‘Great British Cover-Up’ and the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail consultation. The Department for Transport has refused to comment.

It’s vital that we get Grant Shapps to agree to an extension within the next few days, so that passengers, campaigners and trade unions can prepare their responses. Please join us by writing to him at shappsg@parliament.uk

The private rail industry’s ‘perverse incentives’ have stood in the way of passengers’ rights for much too long. We are now gathering evidence of the industry’s many conflicts of interest, to show that this is the true cause of the crisis in passenger trust – as well as the failure to modernise.

For more information, or to share your comments: contact@abcommuters.com

[This page was updated on 03/08/2022 to better reflect changes to the consultation principles in 2018]

EXCLUSIVE: Competition law prevents National Bus Strategy objectives

New documents reveal that the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has warned councils about the legal risks of ‘Enhanced Partnerships’. With no guidance from the Department for Transport on how to proceed, all English local authorities are now at risk of legal action from bus companies if they get it wrong.

Following an FOI request to Reading Borough Council, we can exclusively reveal the details of the Competition and Markets Authority’s objections to Enhanced Partnership (EP) plans for bus services. Email correspondence from March – April 2022 includes the CMA’s general feedback, as well as their specific concerns about Reading’s EP.

The concerns were first raised publicly at a Transport Select Committee hearing in May 2022, when the Deputy Leader of Reading Borough Council, Councillor Tony Page, revealed that: “The CMA is already indicating that it does not like, and will not support, some of the ticketing and fares initiatives that are a fundamental part of the EP, and which the DFT supports…. It is a serious issue, and one that our officers are flagging up. It could be a curve-ball that has not been anticipated. The DFT should have anticipated it because it has been a long-standing concern.” He warned that Reading Borough Council would require further legal advice “that could be a delaying element and could be highly costly”, calling for the DfT to “get the CMA properly aligned and give us proper guidance.”

The CMA informed us that, as an enforcer of competition law, it is able to consult upon, but unable to approve EPs. All local authorities will therefore proceed at their own risk, and are advised to get independent legal advice. The CMA may still open an investigation into any EPs thought to be in breach, as is its duty under the Transport Act 2000 and Schedule 10 of the Competition Test.

The Department for Transport did not comment on whether it plans to issue guidance on the competition concerns, nor whether it still intends to enforce the requirement for all English local authorities to sign up to an EP.

The CMA’s competition concerns:

Fare simplification

In their EP Plan, Reading Borough Council originally intended to introduce simple ‘short hop’ fares, like those available in London. Following consultation with the CMA they dropped the idea from their bus services plan, stating that “It is clear that changing single fares is not allowed.” With the CMA expressing “caution over an intention to set a single price that operators must adhere to given the potential impacts on competition“, it appears that fare simplification and consistency will not be achievable under the EP model.

Multi-operator ticketing

In a list of overall feedback points about EPs, the CMA warned: “The removal of single operator tickets will have a potentially significant impact on the incentives of operators to compete against each other. We encourage careful consultation with operators, so that operators who are uncertain about the legal risks of offering multi-operator tickets are not excluded. We would recommend seeking legal advice to ensure that any scheme is compliant with competition law as the CMA as the UK’s lead competition enforcement agency cannot provide this.”

Governance and service standards

Under EPs, council plans for bus services can only be implemented with 80% of bus operator support; known as the ‘operator objection mechanism’. The CMA makes further recommendations about this governance arrangement, suggesting better representation for smaller operators, and for larger operators’ representation to be ‘defined by contestable criteria (eg total mileage) rather than fixed, named operators.’

Councils must also be careful not to impose too many new requirements at once. The CMA recommends the use of ‘appropriate transition periods’ and suggests that ‘non-prescriptive/outcome based objectives may give greater flexibility to operators to deliver…objectives.’

Passenger compensation schemes

If you have plans for introducing refund guarantees on certain routes, again we would encourage careful consultation with operators, so new schemes do not create the unintended consequence of providers not wanting to service routes or enter the market.”

Network identity

“Where an authority wishes to require buses to adopt a standard livery or branding scheme we would recommend that operator brands should be clearly visible, particularly where operators are competing on overlapping routes. Care should be given to the impact on operators of cross-border routes.”

Demand-Responsive Transport (DRT)

‘Some EPs include proposals for encouraging flexible business models, like Demand Responsive Transport, though the level of thinking and evidence base that has gone into those business models across the EP plans varies. We would encourage you to explore existing trials of these models and learn from best practice in other authorities, where it exists.’

Competition restrictions on Reading Buses

As one of the UK’s few municipally-owned bus companies, Reading Buses can bring back around £3 million, or 12-15% of its annual turnover, per year to be reinvested into the bus network. Because Reading Buses serves more than 80% of the market, Reading Borough Council’s EP plan could not be blocked by the ‘operator objection mechanism’ and went through relatively quickly compared to other local authorities.

However, private bus operators Arriva and Go-Ahead still objected to the plans. According to Reading Borough Council: “Concerns were expressed by Arriva and Go Ahead to aspects of the EP and whilst we did attempt to reassure then that there was and is an arms length relationship with Reading Buses, they did officially object to the EP formation.

The CMA advised: “We note the council owned operator, and considerable market share, of Reading Buses – any decisions taken by the council should be taken at appropriate distance from the operator and the council should adhere to the principle of competitive neutrality (public sector trading operations should not enjoy a commercial advantage solely because of their ownership by or association with government).”

The demand for ‘competitive neutrality’ means that the full potential and economic value of Reading Buses cannot be realised while the deregulated market environment remains in place.

The urgent need for public control and ownership

In September 2021, we predicted that competition issues would turn out to be one of the main reasons that Enhanced Partnerships would fail to deliver on National Bus Strategy objectives, and waste taxpayers’ money:

“The primary condition of funding is for councils to commit to ambitious public investments – especially an increase in bus priority – while bus companies are encouraged to form a ‘collective joint position’ and a ‘shopping list’ of demands from the earliest possible stage. Invitations for ‘reciprocal investment’ are to be ‘heavily weighted’ towards what local authorities can provide, to allow for the commercial uncertainty felt by bus operators as they emerge from the pandemic. Only minor improvements are expected from bus operators in return, as competition law prevents councils from imposing anything but ‘indispensable’ restrictions on the deregulated market. The ability for councils to cross-subsidise services, set prices or generally lower fares will also be banned by law.”

The new information from the CMA confirms our prediction, and highlights the urgent need for councils to gain more powers to implement public control and ownership. This can only be achieved by: 1) ending the requirement for councils to form EPs; and 2) amending the Bus Services Act 2017.

In the National Bus Strategy, the government recognised the “strongly performing examples” of public ownership and promised to review the ban on councils setting up their own municipal bus companies. However, they are currently requiring all local authorities to sign up to Enhanced Partnerships, which will entangle them in the deregulated market for years to come.

To support the campaign against the public ownership ban, please sign We Own It’s petition: ‘End the ban on public ownership now.’

For more information: contact@abcommuters.com

New campaign demands transparency from Department for Transport’s accessibility advisors

Today, we reveal years of transparency failures at the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC), statutory advisors on accessibility to the Department for Transport. Our evidence proves that many vital consultation responses remain unpublished; as well as formal letters warning about the illegality of unstaffed stations and driver-only operation.

In response, DPTAC has agreed that it needs to review its approach to transparency ‘as a matter of priority’ and is now working on its first ever ‘clear publishing policy.’ If they keep this promise, we can expect many controversial documents to shortly be released into the public domain. These are sure to become vital campaigning tools for disabled people and organisations across all forms of transport.

This report aims to ensure DPTAC’s publishing policy goes forward; and that their work is protected from political interference by the Department for Transport.

DPTAC reference frame: working towards a fully accessible railway

In April 2022, Disability News Service (DNS) reported that the late publication of a vital DPTAC report in February prevented disabled people and campaigners being able to use it for major government consultations such as the National Disability Strategy. The ‘DPTAC reference frame’ report includes a damning critique of railway structure and culture, calling for a ‘whole system’ approach that makes accessibility a ‘fundamental’ part of the railway. It also proposes new regulations and more than £6 billion investment to set a timeline for full station accessibility by 2060.

We can now reveal that DPTAC gave inaccurate information about the origin of the ‘reference frame’ report, dating it November 2020 in both their response to DNS and the official publication on their website. The report is actually DPTAC’s May 2019 submission to the Williams Rail Review, meaning that its official publication comes almost three years late.

DPTAC’s submission to the Williams Rail Review, May 2019

The ‘DPTAC reference frame’ report was formally submitted to the Williams Review, the DfT and the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) in May 2019. It was first published on this website in July 2019 as part of a batch of documents received through an FOI request to DPTAC.  Following its public endorsement from the ORR, who recommended that DPTAC be put in charge of ‘developing criteria to support a whole-system approach to accessibility’, we published a dedicated blog post on the report in September 2019; explaining that it had just become ‘the most important document on accessibility in the entire Williams Review.’

The ‘reference frame’ report has since had a significant presence in the ‘Great British Railways’ project, with some of its lower-cost proposals already being taken forward. In March 2022, it was revealed in a Transport Select Committee hearing that DPTAC is now playing a key role in the new ‘National Rail Accessibility Strategy’ and a nationwide station audit – one of the report’s urgent recommendations.

Despite the obvious significance of the report’s origin, it has been published on the gov.uk website with the date of November 2020. This version of the ‘DPTAC reference frame report’ is exactly the same as their May 2019 Williams Review submission; edited for timeline purposes alone.

The Chair of DPTAC, Keith Richards, commented: “Whenever we have revisited the rail paper with the view to using it in subsequent meetings and discussions internally with DfT (often with new teams of officials) we have reviewed it and changed the date as necessary (whether there were any substantive changes to the text or not) simply to show that it reflected our current thinking (despite the passing of time since the original drafting in May 2019).”

In regard to the inaccurate claim that the report had been released to us under FOI in November 2020, Keith Richards said: “when corresponding with DNS and yourself recently I had forgotten that your earlier FOI had resulted in the release of the paper back in July 2019. That’s my mistake and was certainly not from any attempt to mislead anyone.

He did not respond on whether DPTAC would be changing the date of November 2020 on their official publication.

Railway staffing and driver-only operation

DPTAC’s transparency problem goes back much further, regarding one of the most controversial issues in the history of the railway: driver-only operation (DOO). Their May 2019 ‘reference frame report’ was dispatched to the DfT as an attachment to a formal warning letter about the illegality of DOO and unstaffed stations. Following the letter, DPTAC met with ministers to urge them to seek legal advice and adopt an ‘explicit policy’ on DOO; guaranteeing that a guard or member of station staff would be available at all times to provide unbooked assistance.

The letter to ministers followed years of warnings going back to April 2016, when DPTAC wrote to the DfT’s Peter Wilkinson, the DfT civil servant widely believed to be the architect of the industrial dispute over DOO. They warned: ‘The toxic combination of driver-only operated trains and unstaffed stations fails to deliver a service that meets the needs of many disabled passengers. As a result DPTAC is seeking a guarantee that such policies cannot undermine the fundamental principle of accessibility – which would in any event be illegal.’

The letter to Peter Wilkinson was first revealed on this website in July 2018, but, six years after writing, it has still not been officially published by DPTAC. We now host the only publicly-available archive of these documents.

The Chair of DPTAC, Keith Richards, responded: “…the need for DPTAC to have a new publishing policy is clear. There are a number of reasons why we do not and cannot publish everything we may draft for our own internal use and which we use as tools to inform early-stage policy thinking within the DfT,  but I suspect that we have sometimes taken an overly cautious approach and that may not be helpful to our external stakeholders who would value and potentially benefit from knowing what advice DPTAC is providing on key transport accessibility issues across all modes of transport and the built environment.  

So, you are absolutely right that we need to review our approach to publication and I have put that in place already and as a matter of priority I will be working on a clear policy with the members of DPTAC who chair our working groups. Going forward, DPTAC will live up to our responsibility to proactively ensure transparency. This will avoid placing an unfair burden on our stakeholders to seek information through the FOI process, which has regrettably been the case at times in recent years.”

Political pressure from the Department for Transport?

Though we welcome DPTAC’s commitment to creating a ‘clear publishing policy’, there may still be an obstacle in their path. Our evidence suggests that DPTAC has been subject to political pressure from the DfT, and that the DfT may have interfered in their publishing decisions.

In July 2019, we published a viral blog post about DPTAC’s letter to ministers, exposing the existence of ‘wholly inadequate‘ guidance on DOO, developed by the Rail Delivery Group. An email from the DfT to DPTAC in August 2019 suggests they ran significant crisis management on the story: ‘Activity around the Association of British Commuters FOI has unfortunately taken up the resource and time we had set aside to make progress on [getting legal advice on DOO] over the summer.’

Meeting minutes from September 2019 show that three members of DPTAC were then required to sign non-disclosure agreements in regard to their engagement with the Williams Review; restricting what they could share with the rest of the Committee from that point onward.

In an October 2019 discussion about whether to adopt a social media strategy, one member commented ‘DPTAC are monitored by DfT’s Press Office in terms of what can be communicated and when’, and another member suggested ‘DPTAC can work with DfT to plan the material and timing of publications.’ The Chair noted that ‘DPTAC’s social media presence is an early step to explore a soft approach to DPTAC’s outward facing profile, which aims to build trust in DfT’s Press Office.’  To date, DPTAC has not launched the social media strategy.

The Department for Transport commented: ‘A small secretariat in DfT provides administrative support to DPTAC and its members, all of whom work part-time. This includes administrative support in relation to publication of DPTAC documents which are hosted on gov.uk and ensuring documents for publication meet broader gov.uk accessibility standards. As an independent expert committee advising the Secretary of State for Transport, DPTAC are independent of Government and make their own decisions about which documents to publish.’

The Department for Transport did not comment on why it had required members of DPTAC to sign non-disclosure agreements for their work with the Williams Review, the rail reform program still underway under the banner of ‘Great British Railways’.

The urgent need for transparency at DPTAC

Our evidence suggests that DPTAC has failed to fulfil its obligations under Section 19 of the Freedom of Information Act, which requires public authorities to proactively publish documents and ensure the prompt availability of newly-created information. Guidance from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) requires DPTAC to adopt a ‘model publication scheme’, making their reports, policy positions and meeting minutes ‘routinely available’ to the public.

DPTAC must adopt the ICO’s guidance as part of a clear publishing policy that provides transparency to disabled people and the general public. It is vital that the new policy is protected from political interference and ensures DPTAC’s autonomy going forward – as required by their status as an independent statutory body under the 1985 Transport Act.

Upcoming DPTAC publications

We now anticipate the publication of multiple DPTAC consultation responses, including their submission to the Pay As You Go rail consultation (2019), the Future of transport regulatory review (2020), the Law Commission’s consultation on autonomous vehicles (2021) and the National Disability Strategy (2021). There may also be DPTAC research reports available on the Disabled Persons Railcard and the Passenger Assist app.

We have challenged DPTAC to ensure that accuracy is a key part of their new approach, by changing the publication date of their ‘reference frame’ report to May 2019, and including the context that it was in fact DPTAC’s formal submission to the Williams Rail Review. This will be a vital sign of their approach to transparency going forward, and intention to accurately represent the historical record.

Currently, our website hosts the only publicly available archive of DPTAC’s objections to driver-only operation. We demand the official publication of these documents as well as an up-to-date ‘DPTAC position statement’ explaining their concerns about DOO and railway staffing.

For more information: contact@abcommuters.com

[This article was edited on 06.05.2022. to better characterise the fact that the Williams Review rail reform program now continues under the banner of ‘Great British Railways.’]

Govia Ltd: the biggest rail corruption scandal since privatisation

According to press reports yesterday, the Department for Transport is preparing to award disgraced company Govia Ltd a new six-year contract for Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR).

It follows the publication of a £23.5 million penalty notice last week, for long-running financial malpractice on Govia’s Southeastern franchise. The fine is in addition to £64 million of taxpayers’ money falsely claimed by the company.

The penalty notice confirms at least thirteen years of institutionalised malpractice, going back to the very foundation of the franchise. Southeastern began by concealing taxpayers’ money in relation to rolling stock payments from 2007, before escalating their behaviour in relation to HS1 payments from 2014. There is evidence that this happened with the full knowledge of the company’s auditors and Govia’s directors, all of whom are also on the boards of GTR and Southeastern.

But even this damning report only tells part of the story. The fraud investigation was subject to a severe conflict of interest, being run by Govia’s owning groups, Go-Ahead and Keolis – as well as their long-standing auditors, Deloitte. The results of the investigation have been buried by the government and have been subject to no scrutiny whatsoever by any other agency. Despite rumours that the Serious Fraud Office would be investigating this potentially criminal fraud, the Go-Ahead Group commented last month that they ‘do not know’ whether this investigation has taken place.

Outrageously, the government is planning to let their favourite – and most failing – rail company off the hook once again. The penalty notice makes clear that they reduced the fine by over £6 million due to the ‘reputational damage’ to Govia after they were exposed for the history of corruption on Southeastern. Meanwhile, the fraud investigation is untrustworthy and incomplete – the real reason it was rushed out last week was to clear the way for a new six-year franchise to be awarded to their other subsidiary, Govia Thameslink Railway.

Make no mistake, the history of Govia Ltd. is the biggest rail corruption scandal since privatisation.

Govia Thameslink Railway – the UK’s least trusted train company

We have now dispatched a new legal letter, challenging the government on the chaotic history of Govia Thameslink Railway; which has been strongly condemned by Select Committees and the National Audit Office since the beginning of its tenure in 2014.

First, GTR was responsible for the ‘Southern Rail Crisis’ cancelling 7.7% of planned services between 2015 and 2017 (compared to a network-wide average of 2.8%). When the government failed to penalise them for their disastrous performance, we took the DfT to the high court, where they were ordered to impose a penalty on GTR within two weeks, or face a judicial review. Despite claiming in court that the decision was ‘imminent’ they in fact made a hasty and largely ‘verbal’ agreement with GTR for the amount of £13.4 million, to be reinvested into the franchise. £10 million of this was used to buy out their liability for performance two years into the future – meaning that the company was no longer subject to any performance benchmarks whatsoever.

As a result of being given carte blanche on their performance benchmarks, GTR’s management continued to decline, resulting in the timetable collapse of May 2018. Despite being warned of such an outcome time and time again, the DfT passed up every chance to renationalise the franchise. If they had done so, it is likely that the 2018 timetable collapse could have been prevented – and certain that its impact would have been less severe.

After GTR was found to be one of the main parties responsible for the timetable collapse, the DfT made another confidental ‘agreement’ that GTR would invest £15 million into their failing operations. Although a minor profit cap was also imposed, GTR was able to escape this 1.5 years early and benefit from at least a doubling of their profit margin due to the more favourable terms of their covid emergency agreement. To date, the DfT has never imposed a direct fine on GTR – every ‘penalty’ reported in the press has in fact been a remedial measure to be reinvested into this chronically failing franchise.

Staff shortages and long-term mismanagement persist on GTR, who are now experiencing a higher rate of professed ‘covid absences’ than any other franchise in the country. Based on their record of poor management and long-standing driver shortages, it is likely that these issues will continue for another six years if the new contract is awarded.

What’s worse is that the government is now planning to trust them with an unprecedented amount of taxpayers’ money under a new ‘National Rail Contract’. In the DfT’s own words:

Current and future contracts for the provision of franchise services are, and will remain, highly dependent on high value money flows between the contractual parties, frequently based on complex contractual terms. Rail operators will often have more information than the DfT regarding the operations and finances of the franchise. Very substantial amounts of taxpayer monies are involved. In this context it is imperative that the SoS is able to have confidence in the behaviour of operators in the reporting and payment of any sums due to the SoS, and acting in a good faith manner with the SoS and the DfT, including in relation to any matters where there may be any uncertainty.” (Southeastern penalty notice, page 10)

With the directors and auditors of Southeastern, GTR, Govia Ltd and the Go-Ahead Group all reported to be complicit in the scandal, the only responsible decision is to ban these companies permanently from the UK railway.

Support our legal action for public ownership

Since January 2022, we have been collaborating with Bring Back British Rail on a legal action to bring Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern back into public ownership. Please support our action by donating to our legal fund here.

EXCLUSIVE: Freedom of Information requests reveal flexi-ticket failure

On the day of the biggest rail fare increase in a decade, we exclusively reveal the first-ever proof of the astonishing failure of ‘flexi-tickets’.

The main document is the Department for Transport’s impact analysis, dated November 2021, which uses ticket sales data to predict the impact of flexi-tickets. It shows that they are expected to result in just 1.1 million additional journeys in the first year – a 0.5% increase in commuter journeys. The document also reveals the shockingly low government investment behind the scheme, which has been designed to achieve ‘revenue neutrality’ at a mere 1% increase in commuter journeys. At a time when commuter numbers are at around 50% of pre-pandemic levels, this is the clearest proof yet of the lack of aspiration behind the policy.

The document also reveals the true pricing model behind flexi-tickets. The level of discount is around 20% off a monthly season ticket and a working level of 5% off the price of an Anytime Day Return (the highest priced daily ticket). This model fits our prediction since their launch in June last year; that flexi-tickets are a manipulative pricing strategy designed to ‘upsell’ passengers back to traditional season tickets. Flexi-tickets are a high risk purchase with no system of price capping – passengers can end up spending hundreds more than they would have done if they had bought a season ticket.

However, commuters should not lose hope – there is still a chance to get a better deal. The DfT has revealed to us that flexi-tickets are under a ‘formal one year review’, and it’s clear that they expect to update the policy in June 2022. For more information see their responses to our FOI request and Internal Review.

More buried documents on the flexi-ticket scandal

  • The DfT’s impact analysis came heavily redacted, and we suspect it contains further evidence of our claim that flexi-tickets are designed to have an ‘upsell’ effect. We are now challenging their redactions with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).
  • There are several other important documents that the DfT is refusing to release. Of most concern is the Equality Impact Assessment, which they claim is still part of ‘live policy’. This excuse is completely inadequate when flexi-tickets have in fact already been launched, and are already pricing part-time workers even further off the railway. There are huge equality implications for women and other lower income groups, who are significantly over-represented in the part-time demographic.
  • We’ve learned that extensive ‘quantitative and qualitative’ research was conducted prior to the launch of flexi-tickets. The DfT has refused to release these reports, and claims that they will be published at the end of February 2022.
  • Flexi-ticket sales are run through the Rail Delivery Group, which claims ‘commercial confidentiality’ on behalf of their private train company members. It is therefore impossible to access the sales data; despite this being a government policy, where all costs and revenue lie with the taxpayer.

Take action on the flexi-ticket ‘One Year Review’

  • The outrage over flexi-tickets will continue to grow as people return to the office. Passengers, campaigners, trade unions and employers should keep up the pressure from now until June; when they stand a good chance of affecting the policy.
  • Commuters from our online community recently spoke out in the Financial Times as part of an in-depth report including new research on the poor value of flexi-tickets. To join our Facebook group and discuss these issues further, click here.

[This article was edited on 01.03.2022. for clarity around the meaning of the figures involved]

Fifteen years of fraud: allegations against The Go-Ahead Group have doubled in scale

Following the release of The Go-Ahead Group’s accounts last week, the company’s alleged fraud on Southeastern has reached a new level of scandal: unprecedented in the history of rail privatisation.

The alleged fraud is over twice the scale and duration than originally thought – totalling at least £51.3 million, with discrepancies going back to the foundation of Southeastern in 2006. At the time of its renationalisation in October 2021, the Department for Transport had believed the duration to be seven years; totalling £25 million between 2014-2019 (plus active deceit when further concealing this activity between 2020 and 2021).

Having now returned most of this money to the taxpayer, The Go-Ahead Group has put aside a further £30 million for an expected fine from the government. However, by the Group’s own admission, this situation is completely unprecedented and under the powers of the Railways Act 1993, the government has the power to impose a much higher penalty. A further amount of £21.3 million is subject to an ongoing ‘commercial dispute’ with the DfT, but there is no transparency about whether this is also suspected to be fraudulent.

Ultimately, it is impossible to confirm whether these figures reflect the true extent of the alleged malpractice. A fraud investigation concluded in December 2021, but has been subject to a severe conflict of interest as it was run by the owning groups themselves. According to statements from Go-Ahead’s Chief Financial Officer last week, the company “doesn’t know” whether they’ve been investigated by the Serious Fraud Office, as originally reported in September.

Not only has the government allowed Go-Ahead to run their own fraud investigation, they are now helping the company cover up its results. Earlier this month, we revealed through Freedom of Information requests that the DfT does not intend to release the report of this investigation, nor even its ‘terms and scope’. We are now challenging their position in our legal correspondence, claiming an ‘obvious, profound and unavoidable conflict of interest’ throughout the inquiry. From what we know so far, the allegations constitute at minimum a fifteen-year knowing breach of contract – and at worst a criminal fraud.

Govia Limited: a history of failure and deceit

In January 2022, we launched a joint legal campaign with Bring Back British Rail, to bring Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern services into public ownership when Govia’s contract expires at the end of March. We believe there is a strong legal argument that evidence of fraud would taint the entirety of Govia’s operations, meaning any decision by the government to award the company with a new six-year contract would be challengeable in court. 

In response to our legal case, The Go-Ahead Group has said that the issues on Southeastern were “contained within a separate company – London and Southeastern Railway – and had nothing whatsoever to do with Govia Thameslink Railway.” Their claim is easily disproven.

Govia Limited is owned by The Go-Ahead Group (65%) and Keolis (35%). All of Govia’s directors are also on the boards of its subsidiaries, London and South Eastern Railway (LSER) and Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR). As majority owner, The Go-Ahead Group’s Chief Executive and Chief Financial Officers hold directorship roles across all four companies.

The following table shows the directorship of LSER, GTR and Govia Ltd at the time of the discovery of the alleged fraud in March 2020. CEO David Brown and CFO Elodie Brian have since been replaced by Christian Schreyer and Gordon Boyd, respectively.

Govia Thameslink Railway has held the contract for Britain’s biggest rail franchise, TSGN, since 2014. Its record is a litany of failure, including the ‘Southern Rail Crisis’ of 2016, when it cancelled almost 60,000 trains within a year. In 2018, GTR was found to be one of the main parties responsible for the 2018 timetable collapse, which caused chaos all over the UK. Since 2021, the UK’s ‘least trusted train company’ has been subject to two class action lawsuits, alleging deceit in relation to ticketing and zoning issues. Despite having the most catastrophic history of any rail franchise in the UK, the DfT has continually rewarded GTR for its failures.

Due to life-support public subsidy for GTR and its bus operations, The Go-Ahead Group has reported increased operating profits of £115.5 million for the year; boasting that 90% of its revenue is secured through public contracts. Christian Schreyer, CEO, says The Go-Ahead Group is ‘in good shape’, with ‘constructive talks and collaborative negotiations’ on the new GTR contract currently underway.

URGENT: the GTR contract must be stopped

Since the release of The Go-Ahead Group’s 2021 accounts, the Southeastern fraud scandal has doubled in scale. Pressure on the government is now at its peak, with further decisions on the financial penalty expected any day, and a decision on the GTR contract due before the end of March.

All signs suggest the Department for Transport is attempting to cover up this scandal, and the situation could not be more urgent. Please help us by writing to your MP and the Transport Minister Grant Shapps at shappsg@parliament.uk – to condemn the cover-up, and demand that Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern is brought into public ownership at the end of March.

Our legal campaign with Bring Back British Rail is now well underway, funded entirely by passenger donations. Please donate if you can.

Department for Transport hides scandalous report on Go-Ahead fraud investigation

The Department for Transport is hiding a scandalous report that could implicate The Go-Ahead Group in an alleged seven-year fraud on their former Southeastern franchise.

It follows the renationalisation of Southeastern in October, when it returned an initial £25 million to the taxpayer. An investigation into the alleged fraud concluded in early December.

As reported in the Times last week, FOI requests from Bring Back British Rail and the Association of British Commuters reveal that the Department for Transport never intends to release this report to the public. We are now challenging their position as part of our joint legal campaign to ‘Take Back Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern’ into public ownership.

Two official legal letters have now been dispatched to the Department for Transport; demanding the publication of this controversial report. We have also warned the government that they will be open to judicial review if they award owning groups, Go-Ahead and Keolis, a further six-year contract for Govia Thameslink Railway when its contract expires at the end of March.

Legal correspondence with the Department for Transport

The first letter argues that no new contract can be awarded to Govia Thameslink Railway without full transparency and robust conclusions regarding the Southeastern fraud investigation.  Based on what we know so far, our lawyers consider this to be “in the best case a serious and knowing breach of contract, but at worst a criminal fraud.”

It also presents a full history of the Govia Thameslink Railway contract, which has been widely condemned for operational mismanagement and systemic failure since it began in 2014. We are aware that the DfT is actively considering public ownership for TSGN and have demanded to know: what preparations have been made for a takeover; and whether the Department has conducted any analysis of the value of public ownership compared to renewing the contract with GTR.

The second letter provides a point-by-point rebuttal of the DfT’s responses to our recent FOI requests; in which they refuse to release the report, or even the ‘terms, scope and members’ of the investigation.

Our lawyers refer to the obvious conflict of interest behind the investigation, which was run by the owning groups themselves: “We find it extraordinary that an issue as serious and time sensitive as the determination of the veracity of allegations of fraud within a TOC have been left to the corporate owners. There is an obvious, profound and unavoidable conflict of interest.”

The letter also draws attention to comments in the press from ‘unnamed sources’ that the publicly-owned Operator of Last Resort (OLR) does not have the capacity to take over. We find this claim extremely suspicious and have asked the DfT to settle the matter by explaining in detail the preparations that have been made. We remind the government that £20 million was invested in the OLR in 2019 and that the DfT has previously confirmed these contracts are easily scalable at short notice.

How you can help

Please help by emailing your MP and demanding urgent Parliamentary questions on this matter. Despite plenty of coverage in the financial press, politicians have failed to get active on this issue, and a decision on the Govia Thameslink Railway contract is now imminent.

Donate to the Bring Back British Rail legal fund here. Your donations led to a huge success when the East Coast Main Line was brought into public ownership in 2018 – please help us do the same for TSGN.

Follow Bring Back British Rail and Association of British Commuters for updates, including our first official response from the Department for Transport – due later this week.

For further information, find a full record of the legal correspondence here, and a background to the fraud investigation here. Please direct any inquiries to info@bringbackbritishrail.org or contact@abcommuters.com

New legal campaign to take Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern into public ownership

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.

Donate to the Bring Back British Rail legal fund here.