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Transport secretary Grant Shapps has issued a request for proposals on the South Western Railway (SWR) contract after its latest financial statements indicated the franchise “is not sustainable in the long term”.
The MP said that “poor operational performance combined with slower revenue growth has led to the financial performance of SWR to be significantly below expectation since the franchise commenced in August 2017.”
He said that while the operator has not yet failed to meet its financial obligations and the Department for Transport (DfT) will ensure that does not happen, he is looking at other options for train services “as a precautionary measure”.
The request for proposals has been issued to SWR franchise owners FirstGroup and MTR and the Operator of Last Resort (OLR), a public sector firm wholly owned by the DfT.
Options include a new short-term contract with SWR with “tightly defined performance requirements” or nationalising the franchise with services under the control of the OLR.
This is the second major franchise Shapps has threatened with nationalisation, with his decision on the future of Northern Rail due soon.
Meanwhile, the country is still waiting for the final report from the Williams Review to be published.
Announcing his assessment of SWR, Shapps said: “Across the country a number of franchises are failing to provide the reliable services that passengers require and there are legitimate questions on whether the current franchising model is viable. Keith Williams – who is leading an independent review into the railways – has already stated that franchising cannot continue in its current form. His review will propose sector-wide reforms which aim to put passengers at the heart of the railway.”
Shapps’ statement comes after SWR passengers experienced 27 days of disruption in December as workers went on strike in a continuing dispute over the role of guards on trains – something the transport secretary addressed in his announcement.
“Modernisation of the railways must come with reciprocal modernisation of the way the railway is operated,” Shapps said. “Passengers on SWR have already suffered significant disruption from industrial action by the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) and this week the RMT are balloting for further strikes.
“These strikes are not about safety, accessibility, or helping passengers. Driver-controlled trains are perfectly safe and have been operated elsewhere on the network for many years. These trains allow the guards to devote much more time to looking after passengers, which is of great benefit to those who need help with travel, like the disabled and the aged. This modernisation is essential if the future needs of this railway are to be met. Whoever operates SWR services, I will remain committed to modernising services and improving support for passengers.”
The government announced in the December Queen’s Speech that it plans to introduce new legislation that would set out minimum service requirements in the event of a rail strike.
Shapps’ latest comment has been labelled a “total cop out” by the RMT, with general secretary Mick Cash saying: “This government is acting like a puppet for the rail companies, throwing good public money after bad and trying to breathe life into the rotting corpse of privatised rail. Instead of dreaming up new ways to subsidise private sector profits by attacking civil liberties, he [Shapps] should stop pushing cost-cutting driver only operation and bring SWR into public ownership, running it in the interests of passengers and workers, not his mates in the City.”