Southern Rail: Government as much to blame as operator GTR for £13.4m fine

It's time to put the interests of passengers over profit 

James Moore
Chief Business Commentator
Thursday 13 July 2017 16:14 BST
In the siding: Southern operator GTR has been hit with a £13.4m fine
In the siding: Southern operator GTR has been hit with a £13.4m fine (PA)

A £13.4m slapped wrist? That was the RMT’s verdict on the fine the Department for Transport slapped on Southern rail operator Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR). The union has a point.

The penalty was imposed for the rotten performance of the franchise and the Government said that it would have been higher but for industrial action – sparked by plans to introduce driver only controlled trains, staff shortages and other problems.

But here’s the thing: it takes two to start a fight. It’s all very well to complain about the rail unions, but GTR must accept a share of the blame for the poor industrial relations that have plagued Southern.

Meanwhile, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling had to accept that strikes “did not fully explain the poor service”.

Even though disruption caused by them has declined since Christmas, service levels were still found to be not good enough.

GTR thoroughly deserves a kicking for that, and it ought to have faced a higher penalty to get the message home to its managers.

But the reality is that Government is as much to blame for the mess as the train operating company. It was a Conservative Government that came up with the idea of handing the job of running the railways to companies like GTR. Rail privatisation, and the way it was effected, was a triumph of ideology over common sense. Ever since then cash has taken precedence over customer service. Britain's rail industry has put profits over passengers.

That can be seen from the fact that Southern is far from the only franchise to have endured problems. Then there is the ticketing system, a confusing mess for years. Commuters have been rammed on to ever smaller trains. Fares have shot up. And then there were the accidents. Let’s not forget the accidents in the early years of privatisation.

The overarching aim of Government policy has been to reduce the subsidy the taxpayer hands to the railways and thus to deliver value to the taxpayer. That might sound like a good idea. But consider the economic benefits that would flow from having a rail system like some of those on the continent.

Consider, too, the environmental benefits from taking cars off the roads. Consider where we might be if the Government looked at the money it spends on rail not as a subsidy, but rather as an investment, and sought a better way of delivering rail transport than handing the job over to companies whose aim is to wring as much profit as possible from the decaying corpse of the system. There is more than just one way to deliver value to the taxpayer.

The fine on GTR will, we are told, be spent on “performance and passenger improvements” including £4m to fund 50 on-board train supervisors over the next two years.

That just adds more weight to the case for the prosecution. It shouldn’t take a fine for that to happen.

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