THE government should strip South Western Railway of its franchise or impose strict new standards to fix the “rapid deterioration” in its service, Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable has said.
The company took over the region, which includes the New Forest and Christchurch, in 2017 but has since been widely criticised by passengers for its reliability.
Sir Vince’s intervention in the House of Commons came just a day before the RMT union announced its latest strike on Saturday 22nd December in its battle with SWR over the long-term role of train guards.
The Lib Dem MP represents Twickenham but has a home near Brockenhurst where the village station is used by about a million passengers each year, including commuters and college students.
Customer satisfaction with SWR measured by consumer group Transport Focus had dropped 12% in a year to 56%, Sir Vince said, caused in part by the company struggling to cope with moments of major disruption.
He said: “Now the whole network is disabled for prolonged periods, due to the apparent inability of either Network Rail or South Western to deal with the problem.”
As reported in the A&T, passengers were left stranded on Monday 19th November when the system nearly ground to a halt after Network Rail engineering overran near London Waterloo.
Sir Vince also pointed to regular strikes by the RMT; the delay in the new timetable meant to come in this month; and the impending 3% national fare rise.
Key findings of an independent review by Sir Michael Holden, commissioned by SWR, showed in August it was not investing enough after becoming “financially stretched” by underbidding for the franchise, said Sir Vince.
“There are serious questions for the department and the minister about to how the franchise was allowed to take place and result in a serious deterioration of standards,” he added.
He called for either a replacement train operator or tighter controls to improve SWR’s performance.
Junior transport minister Andrew Jones responded: “The key thing is that lessons are being learned. We are investing in new rolling stock and having a proper hard look at how we can deliver the railway that people need.”
An SWR spokesperson said only a quarter of delays were within the company’s control and it was investing £5m in train reliability. Network Rail was also spending £2bn over the next five years to improve the tracks.
He said Sir Michael’s review had given SWR a blueprint to improve, adding: “We recognise that we haven’t delivered the standard of performance expected for our customers.”
SWR officially took over the seven-year franchise from Stagecoach’s South West Trains in August last year promising £1.2bn of investments by 2024 on new and refurbished trains, station improvements, and simpler tickets.
The company is a joint venture between FirstGroup and Chinese firm MTR which has a 30% stake.