The Government plans to inject £20m into the Southern network to turnaround the performance of its services and restore passenger confidence.
Transport Secretary Chris Grayling confirmed a package of measures today (Thursday September 1) including the fund and the appointment of one of Britain’s most experienced rail industry figures to help get the service back running as it should.
Chris Gibb will head a new project board, working with Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), the Department for Transport, and Network Rail to explore how to achieve a rapid improvement to services.
The board will oversee the £20m fund and closer working between GTR and Network Rail to improve performance for Southern customers.
Passengers have faced months of disruption and chaos for months as the rail operator has been locked in a bitter dispute with the RMT union over plans to change the role of conductors on Southern services to on-board supervisors.
This would see drivers operate train doors instead of conductors.
The RMT is holding a 48-hour strike starting on Wednesday September 7, with a separate walkout for station staff starting on the same day in response to plans to cut the opening hours at ticket offices.
The £20m fund will aim to tackle problems on the line placing more rapid response teams on the franchise, accelerating the replacement of worn track, and hiring extra staff at key stations including East Croydon and Gatwick to make sure trains get away on time.
Mr Grayling said: “I want the Southern network to be run by a team of people who work together to make sure passengers get decent journeys and that problems are dealt with quickly. This review will suggest how we achieve a joined up approach to running the train and tracks and make things work better for the public.
“We also need to get to grips with things that go wrong on this part of the network. That is why we are putting in place a £20 million scheme to tackle the cause of breakdowns that too often cause frustrating and damaging delays on the network.
“I now urge the industry, the train operating company and unions to work together to improve services for passengers.”
Charles Horton, chief executive officer at GTR, added: “We welcome the benefits this £20 million improvement package will bring for passengers, tackling some of the key infrastructure challenges on the network.
“Network Rail and Southern will continue to work closely together to ensure this investment delivers real, tangible benefits for our passengers and the new project board will ensure the programme is effectively delivered.
“This investment complements our existing programme of improvements which is bringing in new trains and changing working practices to improve customer service.”
But Mick Cash, general secretary of the RMT, said: “This stinks of another multi-million pound taxpayer subsidy to bail out the failing Southern rail part of the Govia Thameslink franchise. If there’s money to prop up this private outfit why isn’t there cash available to make sure that the guards and safety are protected on their trains?
“If this huge chunk of money was allocated to maintaining the safety-critical role and the jobs of the train guards on the Southern services we could have avoided the strike action that has been forced on us again next week by the penny-pinching, profiteering and intransigence of Southern/GTR.”
The move was welcomed by Brighton Kemptown MP Simon Kirby, but criticised by Brighton Pavilion MP Caroline Lucas.
Mr Kirby said: “I welcome the news that the Government is investing £20 million and creating a new project board to help to resolve some of the terrible problems that commuters in my constituency have had to put up with for months.”
But Dr Lucas accused the government of ‘ploughing subsidies into a failing private company, and added: “If the government was serious about sorting the problems with Southern Rail then they would withdraw the damaging requirement for driver only trains, use this cash to employ the staff needed to run the railway, and give long-suffering passengers the compensation they deserve.”
A passenger representative will also be included on this review board to ensure commuters’ views are heard and improvements properly reflect passenger demands.
The project board will present this plan in the autumn and actions will be implemented as soon as possible.
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