Grilling for train chiefs

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The director of the Office of Passenger Rail Franchising (Opraf), John O'Brien, will come under intense criticism over the South West Trains affair when he and company executives go before Parliament's Transport Select Committee on Wednesday.

The committee is expected to lambast the regulator over what some MPs describe as "serious lapses in stewardship" of the privatised rail network.

On Friday, in response to a rising tide of criticism from rail groups and politicians, Opraf told South West Trains, a subsidiary of Stagecoach, that it faced a fine of pounds 1m and the possible loss of its franchise after the company cancelled more than 2,500 trains following the introduction of new shift patterns among its drivers on 19 January.

The cancellations arose after South West Trains made too many of its drivers redundant in a cost-cutting exercise. The rail regulator said on Friday that SW Trains would have to deliver at least 98.5 per cent of its minimum service requirement in April and May or be fined. Anything less than 97.5 per cent and the company could lose its franchise, the regulator said.

Andrew Mackinlay, Labour MP for Thurrock and one of the more outspoken members of the Transport Committee, said that the fine threatened by Opraf was "derisory" and added that he would be questioning the rail regulator closely over why service levels were being allowed to fall below the minimum levels set by the franchise contract.

"We will be taking Opraf to task for apparently lacking the will to protect customers and allowing this amazingly bad personnel situation to arise," Mr Mackinlay said.

He added: "This idea of fining them pounds 1m is nonsense. It's just a small slice of the millions of taxpayers' money that has been handed over to them to run the franchise."

Other MPs on the committee were more circumspect about where the blame lay.

Peter Bottomley, Conservative MP for Eltham, said: "It will be interesting to know how they plan to improve their service. But it is worth remembering that if this was the old BR, it would not be possible to demand this level of accountability."