TLC writes open letter on the cancellation of the South Eastern franchise competition

Tonbridge Line Commuters has today written to Grant Shapps, Secretary of State for Transport, to express its concern about the Government’s decision to abandon the process of awarding a new South Eastern franchise.  The new franchise would have seen significant improvements for passengers in Kent, but there is now appears to be no plan to deliver any of these benefits.  Instead, the Government appears to be continuing its strategy of dither and delay, with a further Direct Award extension of the current franchise to April 2020 and no certainty about what will happen after that.  Passengers deserve better, and we invite the Secretary of State for Transport to set out how he intends to fulfil the Government’s promise to deliver a modern, reliable and high capacity rail service for the people of Kent.

The full text of the letter is below, together with an entirely uninformative reply from an unnamed Department for Transport official. We will continue to hold the Government to account for its failure to deliver the promised benefits. If you support our campaign, do consider joining Tonbridge Line Commuters.   The more more members we have, the more pressure we can exert on the Government and the rail industry to provide the train service we deserve.

An open letter to Grant Shapps, Secretary of State for Transport, on the cancellation of the South Eastern franchise competition

Dear Mr Shapps,

On 7 August the Department for Transport terminated the South Eastern franchise competition. This ended a process which started in 2016 and in which we have been actively engaged. As one of the largest independent rail user groups in the UK, we campaigned for the new franchise to properly serve the needs of passengers from Tonbridge, Paddock Wood and Hildenborough. Our involvement included meetings with DfT officials and the rail minister Andrew Jones MP, meetings with the companies bidding for the franchise, responding to the DfT’s public consultation and protracted correspondence on the subsequent Invitation to Tender (ITT).

These efforts have all be undertaken in the personal time, and often at the personal expense, of our dedicated committee members. It is therefore disappointing, to put it mildly, to learn that all these efforts have been in vain. We will not be compensated for the time and expense that we invested in the process, yet as tax payers our money will be used to compensate the commercial bidders. Our most serious concern, however, is that we will now forgo the promised benefits of the new franchise. These were set to include:

An overall boost capacity with space for at least an extra 40,000 passengers per day (DfT Press Release, 29 November 2017)

  • A major timetable enhancement in December 2022, including fast services between Tonbridge and London, faster trains between Tonbridge and Ashford and a doubling of the Sunday service at Hildenborough
  • The procurement of new rolling stock to replace the increasingly aged and unreliable trains currently in service (particularly the end of life class 465 “Networker” units)
  • The remove of first class on services within 18 months of the new franchise, to release much needed capacity for standard class ticket holders

Please can you set out a full timeline showing when these improvements will now be delivered? Without these promised enhancements, passengers in Kent will continue to suffer a slow, congested and unreliable rail service.

We are aware that the DfT has cited the Williams Rail Review as one of the reasons for the cancellation of the franchise competition, claiming that it wishes to wait for the findings the Review. However, the same considerations did not prevent the award of the West Coast franchise to First Trenitalia on 14 August. Instead, the DfT claimed that it made that award in a way which reflected with the direction of the Review, despite the fact that the Review has not yet published any findings. We cannot see why the South Eastern franchise was treated differently. Rather, it appears that the South Eastern competition was cancelled simply due to the DfT’s repeated inability to run a successful bidding and award process.

Your department’s incompetence has a real impact on the day to day lives of passengers. It is time to set out how you intend to provide a modern, reliable and high capacity rail service to the people of Kent.

Yours sincerely,

John Morton

Honorary Secretary
Tonbridge Line Commuters

The reply from an unnamed official at the Department for Transport

Dear Mr Morton,

Thank you for your letter dated 2 October 2019 to the Secretary of State for Transport, the Rt Hon Grant Shapps MP, about the South Eastern franchise competition. Your correspondence has been passed to Passenger Services for reply.

The Department made the decision to cancel the South Eastern franchise competition in light of the significant concerns that continuing the competition process would lead to additional costs being incurred by the taxpayer, with no certainty that this would deliver envisaged benefits for passengers in a timely fashion.

The decision to cancel was not an easy decision to make. The Department made every effort and considered all possible options to complete the competition, including a further rebid. The Department also appreciates the efforts that the Tonbridge Line Commuters took in respect of its engagement with the South Eastern Franchise.  However, it was determined that, on balance, considering the wider public interests and timely delivery of passenger benefits, cancellation was the option that would deliver the best outcome for passengers.

With regard to the specific concerns raised in your letter in respect of the “promised benefits of the new franchise”, we address each of your points in turn:

  • the Department is developing a solution for the franchise that delivers the capacity and performance benefits that passengers are expecting as quickly as possible.
  • the current timetable will continue under the current Direct Award. Beyond this, the Department is developing a solution that delivers the performance benefits that passengers are expecting as quickly as possible.
  • the Department did not specify that bidders must provide new rolling stock. Rather, the competition mandated an increase in rolling stock capacity and the bidder was free to decide how to meet the required capacity metrics. The Department is currently considering alternative options for delivering this increase in capacity as soon as possible.
  • the declassification of First Class from Mainline services was a requirement of the competition and is therefore being considered as part of the Department’s next steps for the franchise.

Please be assured that options for the next South Eastern franchise will be developed in a manner that puts passengers at the heart of the process.

Once again, thank you for raising your concerns with us. We hope you find this reply helpful.

Yours sincerely,

Correspondence Team, Passenger Services, Rail Group

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