COMMUTERS have said they are “sickened and gobsmacked” to learn that a rail company responsible for bringing misery to the lives of thousands of commuters has not breached its contract.

Today The Argus can reveal that Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), which runs the Southern network, is not considered to be in breach of its franchise agreement according to the Department for Transport.

We can also report that compensation packages for commuters suffering the loss of 341 trains a day during the current “emergency” timetable have been extensively discussed by GTR but are awaiting approval by the Department for Transport.

Charity worker Rona Hunnisett, 49, who takes the train from Brighton to London Victoria every day, said: “Well they’re certainly breaching their contract with passengers.

“That makes me feel sickened to my stomach. That’s appalling. Any other business would have been hounded out of town.”

Hove commuter Ben Lambert said: “It strikes me as incredible they are not in breach of contract for what have been the most appalling three months on the railways. I’m genuinely gobsmacked.

“I’m disappointed and I have no confidence in the improvement plans.”

The revelation follows a Freedom of Information request in which the Department of Transport confirmed no default notices, rectification notices or warnings of financial penalties have been issued to GTR in the last six months.

A spokeswoman clarified that £2 million in penalties has been taken between September 2014 and June 2016 but under the terms of the franchise these can be levied without formal notices.

She said: “No such notices have been issued to the operator in the past six months as they are not in breach of their franchise agreement or remedial plan.”

The DfT and GTR are currently in discussions as to whether the company can classify industrial action as beyond their control – a so-called “force majeure” clause.

At a meeting with commuters at Victoria Station yesterday morning, GTR chief operating officer Dyan Crowther told commuters the company had already given the DfT options for compensating commuters for the reduced timetable.

She said one plan was to reduce the threshold for “delay repay” from 30 minutes to 15 minutes and to backdate it and another was to offer a lump sum.

Today When new Rail Minister Paul Maynard was pressed on the subject in a conference call with a group of Sussex MPs, he said an announcement on compensation was “imminent”.

Meanwhile, plans are afoot elsewhere in the rail industry to charge customers extra to squeeze on to the most packed trains.

Online ticket seller Trainline told a national newspaper that it is planning to use GPS tracking technology on users’ smartphones to monitor how busy a train is, and if it is overcrowded to charge less for the subsequent service.

The “live pricing” ticket system is unlikely to be appreciated by commuters on peak services who would end up paying more despite standing in more crowded carriages.

It is thought that the move would not affect regulated fares, such as season tickets – but may be used to automate the payment of compensation for late or cancelled trains.

Chief Executive Clare Gilmartin said: “We want to help train operators manage their yield more effectively, as current ticketing systems do not allow them to do this very well”


The Argus:

YESTERDAY four policeman in high-vis jackets flanked senior Govia executives Charles Horton and Dyan Crowther as they answered questions from furious commuters at Victoria Station in London.

The neon yellow uniforms stood as a stark visual symbol of how incredibly strained relations have become between the company and its customers over the course of three months of rail torment which The Argus has worked to report in painstaking detail.

Since the first rumblings of strike action began to stir in the spring, we have led the way, bringing to light the problems faced by Sussex commuters and pushing for answers from the company, unions and ministers – not all of who have always been easy to track down.

Back on April 25 our front page read “Strike One, Strike Two”, focusing on the first of the rail walk-outs which chaotically coincided with the junior doctors’ strike.

Relations between the the Rail Maritime and Transport workers’ union (RMT) and franchise owner Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) finally broke down.

Unions insisted then and now they are acting for on behalf of the safety of passengers, which they say would be put at risk by GTR’s plans to remove some platform-based responsibilities from the role of conductors as the trains move to “driver only operation” (DOO) in line with the terms of the franchise.

GTR for its part have pointed to the third of Britain’s trains which use DOO and promised not to cut any jobs for the duration of the franchise.

The change, due to come in next month, would reduce the unions’ power however, because trains would legally be able to run without a conductor on board.

On Tuesday, April 26 we warned readers more than 600,000 journeys would be missed as a result of the strike and in the first sentence on the front page we wrote “Passengers are being warned of a summer of misery”. Sadly, we were proved right.

We also reported rail workers faced accusations of taking extra sick days as a way of carrying out unofficial strike action, a claim repeatedly made by bosses and the Department for Transport, and repeatedly and vociferously denied by union chiefs.

By June 11 we, not to mention commuters, were getting fed up with the invisible Rail Minister Claire Perry, who had been ducking our calls and questions for a week. The following day we dispatched reporter Ben James to the DfT to track her down.

And track her down he did. He got the minister to speak out for the first time on the crisis and she blamed unions while declaring the managers ment were the best in the business.

She later appeared to change her tune before resigning amid the Tory leadership change.

And on July 6 we helped inform commuters of Southern’s plans to introduce the emergency timetable which would remove 341 trains a day and, we warned, put businesses and livelihoods on the line. It has – as it has proved.

A week later, our front page was devoted to sharing your tweets describing the heat, crowding, delays and frustrations endured on the first day of the new timetable.

Even protected services were imperfect but commuters from places like Seaford, which lost 85 per cent of its rail links overnight, were incandescent. Scores and scores of commuter tweets filled the paper.

And then yesterday, sharing with readers across Sussex a photograph of tumultuous scenes at a Brighton Station closed due to overcrowding, our headline stated “Trains: we can’t go on like this”.

Even now developments continue to unfold and The Argus team continues to follow events to provide the best possible coverage and apply the most pressure we can on behalf of our readers.

At a Transport Select Committee hearing on Wednesday, new Rail Minister Paul Maynard was pressed to say where responsibility for the catastrophe lay.

Committee chairwoman Louise Ellman said figures showed that only one in 10 trains had arrived on time even during the revised reduced timetable, which was intended to provide greater reliability.

She said only 12 per cent of trains had arrived on time over the last two and a half weeks.

The minister said that responsibility lay with the franchise holder to improve performance.

Select Committee Member and Sussex MP Huw Merriman stressed that Mr Maynard was new in the job and said he was a “big fan”, but added that based on the minister’s responses to the committee: “I don’t think the DfT has briefed him on the severity of the situation.”

At the hearing a DfT official said future rail franchises would be smaller than Govia’s following these disruptions.