The company running the Southern railway has done nothing wrong contractually, according to its chief executive, who blamed strikes for the problems suffered by commuters on the service.
In recent months, MPs have called on the government to take over the service, saying that ministers were failing to enforce the terms of GTR’s contract, with hundreds of trains failing to run on time daily.
However, David Brown, the boss of Go-Ahead, owners of Southern’s operator Govia Thameslink Railway, defended the strike-ridden operator’s performance.
“We haven’t actually done anything wrong in this contract – we’ve done the things we were asked to do by the government in the interests of the customers,” Brown said.
Brown was speaking on Tuesday, when Go-Ahead shares fell by almost 14% after the group announced a 13% drop in profits for the first half of 2016-17, partly driven by the losses on GTR.
Patrick Butcher, the chief financial officer of Go-Ahead, said that GTR had made a loss of about £4m, but could lose as much as £15m over the year dependent on the negotiations. “We won’t make money on this contract until we start running trains reliably,” he added.
Brown insisted that “the the issues were down to the strikes, to be blunt”. He said that GTR had made significant progress which would benefit customers eventually: “We’ve introduced more trains than any other franchise in the UK, we’ve got the largest driver recruitment school in Europe, we’ve opened two of the biggest depots in the UK, and we’re the first train operator to introduce delay repay [compensation for passengers] at 15 minutes.”
But, he said: “In terms of the customers there have been awful things that have happened.” He admitted that “in terms of staff engagement, absolutely” the firm could have done things differently, but said that the firm had needed to change the railway and ways of working. “I regret we were in that position.”
He defended the way the company had pushed through plans to extend driver-only operation of trains and downgrade the role of conductors, which led to the strike: “We’re doing this because it’s the right thing for the railways, for taxpayers – we aren’t doing anything wrong. It’s not my safety case. It was not unreasonable to assume we’d get this through. These are still good jobs paying lots of money.”
Brown claimed that, despite the fact that GTR was still officially in dispute with Aslef – whose drivers rejected an agreement struck by the union leaders with GTR – and the RMT, the service was much improved. “My postbag has dropped a hundredfold. People are much happier. The number of cancellations is down to single digits.”
While Southern ran about 90% of its trains during a one-day strike by the RMT last week, Brown said: “We do want to reach resolution on these issues, they need to be resolved.” He added that “our door is always open” to the RMT, the union that has led the majority of strikes since last April.
But the union said on Tuesday that it had been snubbed by the firm, and called more strikes on Southern on 13 March in the ongoing dispute over the changes to the role and responsibilities of drivers and onboard crew.
Mick Cash, the RMT general secretary, said: “The abject failure by Southern rail to meet with us, to clarify their exact position on the second safety-critical member of staff and to take the safety issues seriously has left us with no option but to confirm further action.”
Go-Ahead is still in negotiation with the Department for Transport over its responsibility for disruption on Southern – including a period of several months in mid-2016 when it operated an emergency timetable, cancelling hundreds of services daily even without strikes. GTR argued that it was unable to run services due to force majeure, citing levels of sickness that it claimed was unofficial industrial action – a claim being scrutinised by the DfT.
While strikes on Southern may have abated, further disruption is likely to continue on GTR from long-term engineering works on the Thameslink service, which should deliver faster, more frequent trains through the redeveloped London Bridge by the end of 2018.