A few days ago, the Government yet again kicked a can further into the long grass after failing repeatedly to negotiate a deal. We refer, of course, to the South Eastern franchise, whose passengers have been let down yet again with an announcement from the Secretary of State for Transport, Chris Grayling, informing us that the award of the new franchise has been delayed once more. Worst still, the announcement has confirmed that negotiations with the existing franchise operator, Govia, have only just ‘started’ despite the current end of the franchise being dangerously soon on 22 June.
Once again, long promised and well-overdue improvements have been pushed back – resulting in further prolonged suffering for Southeastern’s passengers on overcrowded and increasingly ageing and unreliable rolling stock. Although we have raised our concerns with parts of the new franchise specification, such as the requirement to stop more trains at Orpington during the peaks, deferring the franchise yet again does not help anyone. Extending the Direct Award another time might keep the lights on, but it doesn’t address the chronic issues Southeastern’s passengers have suffered year after year.
Even more alarmingly, the announcement confirms that the Department for Transport is at present merely ‘negotiating’ the terms of a Direct Award extension. With only 10 weeks to go until the current franchise agreement ends on 22 June the Department for Transport is playing a dangerous game. Although we fully expect Govia to accept a new Direct Award, it will likely come at a cost to the taxpayer – with very little of that cost resulting in tangible improvements for passengers. However, Govia could still quite easily decline to continue with a Direct Award extension, leaving the Government with no option but to bring back their Operator of Last Resort – again at a cost to the taxpayer and likely resulting in little in the way of noticeable enhancements.
We will be watching developments very closely. Whatever option is chosen, ultimately it needs to bring the right benefits to the passenger – addressing the issues of chronic overcrowding, lack of 15-minute delay repay thresholds, and increasingly aged and unreliable rolling stock. For far too long, passengers have suffered unfairly only to be told that a new franchise which will bring radical improvements is just around the corner. Alas, yet again, passengers have been let down by the Government.