MPs accuse the Government of hiding evidence on the poor performance of Southern Rail

Committee’s report says Department of Transport is refusing to reveal whether under-fire operator is in breach of its contract – and, therefore, could be stripped of it

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The Government is accused today of hiding evidence to thwart calls for the operator of crisis-hit Southern Rail to be stripped of its contract.

A committee of MPs condemns the Department for Transport (DfT) for refusing to make available the statistics it will use to assess whether the number of cancelled trains should trigger a termination.

Officials said the assessment would not be complete until long after the current industrial action is over, despite strikes being planned into December – a delay attacked by MPs as “unacceptable”.

As a result, growing calls for Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) to hand over the Southern Rail franchise – after its emergency timetable cancelled hundreds of services every day – have been dismissed.

Today’s report, by the Commons transport select committee, demands that the DfT make a decision on whether GTR is in default “by early November”.

And it says: “The DfT has a duty to hold train operating companies to account for poor performance; passengers expect and deserve this.

“It is unacceptable that the data required to scrutinise GTR’s performance against its contractual benchmarks are not made readily available.

“The Department’s evasive and opaque answers to our questions hindered our inquiry and delayed publication of this report.”

The report follows many months of misery for hundreds of thousands of passengers on routes into London from parts of Kent, Surrey, Sussex and Hampshire.

GTR is locked in a bitter dispute the RMT rail union over whether replacing conductors with on-board supervisors is a threat to safety – resulting in escalating chaos, overcrowding and delays.

The last day of a three-day strike ended at midnight last night (Thurs), but 11 further days of industrial action are planned between now and early December.

Ministers backed the company when its much-shrunken emergency timetable was introduced in July, blaming the RMT’s “unjustified industrial action” and high levels of staff sickness for the crisis.

Today, the transport committee concludes GTR was “significantly in excess” of the acceptable number of cancellations between May and August this year.

Normally, this would be “grounds for termination of the contract”, if GTR had not claimed “force majeure” – unforeseeable circumstances that prevented it fulfilling its contract – because of the strikes.

It is the statistics against which the July force majeure claims will be tested that the DfT is accused of refusing to disclose – until “six to eight weeks” after the industrial action is over.

In September, two months later, rail minister Paul Maynard told the committee the claims were “exceptional in their complexity and unprecedented in scale” and could not be settled any earlier.

But the MPs said: “It is also unacceptable that the department does not intend to conclude its assessment of GTR’s force majeure claims until the current industrial dispute is resolved.”

Louise Ellman, the committee’s Labour chairwoman, added: “The individual voices of customers suffering woeful service on Southern Railway, in particular, came through loud and clear during our inquiry.”

The DfT did not respond directly to the allegation that it was keeping evidence under wraps, but insisted ending the Southern Rail crisis was “a priority for the Government”.

A spokesman said: “Simply changing the management, or taking the franchise from GTR, would not address the issues and would only create uncertainty and cause further disruption.

“It could also delay the introduction of modern, more spacious trains by Southern.”