As Southeastern is stripped of its franchise - what now for commuters and Kent's rail service?


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When Grant Shapps tweeted this morning that Southeastern was being stripped of its franchise, it brought down the curtain on 15 years which were, at times, more akin to a rollercoaster than train ride.

The fact the government has pulled the rug from under its feet due to Southeastern's apparent failure to pay £25million of "historic taxpayer funding" over the years is perhaps the biggest surprise for commuters digesting the day's dramatic developments.

Grant Shapps has pulled the plug on Southeastern
Grant Shapps has pulled the plug on Southeastern

Because over the years the service has been the subject of stinging criticism from passengers - many of whom will have surely assumed it would. at some point, have been stripped of its role due to performance rather than financial management.

Since taking over the franchise in 2006, it has frequently occupied some of the lower positions in national surveys when it comes to customer satisfaction and value for money.

When Transport Focus issued its annual survey on performance in 2014, Southeastern customers' satisfaction levels fell to their lowest since 2005 - with just 72% saying they were happy.

Two years later, a Passenger Focus survey put its approval ratings at a miserly 69%. It was second bottom of the national list for reliability and punctuality too at 56%.

The fact its franchise was regularly extended came to become something of a mystery to many commuters who bemoaned the service.

Yet it had invested heavily both in its services and customer service levels in recent years.

Cynics would suggest that investment came amid a baying for blood from MPs and travellers at the levels of service and mounting speculation it may lose the right to operate the service.

Regardless, in Transport Focus' 2019 survey, Southeastern's satisfaction levels had reached 82% and customer reaction to the franchise appeared to be improving.

Yet for many, it was a case of too little too late.

There have been successes too. Rolling stock has improved dramatically in quality and the launch of High Speed 1 was hailed a great success - albeit the price hikes for ticket holders leaving many commuters with a sour taste in their mouth. But the fast routes to London have transformed access to and from the capital for many - and breathed new life into many parts of the county.

Southeastern rarely covered itself in glory during periods of extreme weather
Southeastern rarely covered itself in glory during periods of extreme weather

In mitigation, as one of the busiest rail networks in the country, due to its proximity to London, it has faced - pre-pandemic - an ever increasing demand for its services.

According to Southeastern, it operates 2,016 train journeys every weekend, carrying 640,000 passengers; a situation which could result in heavily congested carriages at peak times.

In addition, annual price hikes to season ticket prices were imposed upon it by the government - a fact often over-looked by passengers.

The pandemic allowed it a little breathing space - and many felt it reacted well to the crisis, keeping heavily depleted services operating and ensuring cleaning regimes were in place for safe travel.

Yet for all its steps forward over recent years, the franchise will, as of October 17, become the latest part of Kent's railway history.

British Rail once ran the nation's rail network - a state-owned entity which oversaw the running of services and the up-keep of the rails and stations.

Southeastern responded well to the Covid crisis
Southeastern responded well to the Covid crisis

But between 1994 and 1997 it was privatised - ushering in companies bidding to run franchises for each region and Railtrack (now known as Network Rail) formed to ensure the rail infrastructure was maintained.

In 1996, passengers in Kent saw Connex South Eastern become the first franchise holder. But by 2002 it was facing financial difficulties and needed a multi-million pound bailout. It was eventually stripped of the franchise the following year.

South Eastern Trains - a subsidiary of the Strategic Rail Authority - was then ushered in to run services while a new franchise agreement was agreed. The Strategic Rail Authority was a non-departmental government body set up to oversee the UK's rail network.

Taking longer than anticipated to agree, Southeastern finally took over on April Fool's Day 2006.

Southeastern is owned by Govia - a joint venture between the Go-Ahead Group and France-headquartered Keolis.

The issue will be the hot topic being debated on this evening's Lowdown
The issue will be the hot topic being debated on this evening's Lowdown

So what will the end of its reign of our trains mean for passengers? The likely reality is that, for the short-term, probably very little.

The trains will keep on running, operating staff will continue, and tickets will still be valid. The chances are even the branding on trains and stations will remain in place for the short-term.

However, the government is likely to want to demonstrate it can do a good job.

It has also vowed to "continue to deliver tangible improvements across the network", citing the completion of the roll-out of improved trains onto Metro route to provide "more spacious, comfortable journeys", as well as improvements to the existing fleet of trains.

It has also pledged to "improve security across the network".

Commuters will be keen to see what comes next for their essential transport link
Commuters will be keen to see what comes next for their essential transport link

After that, it remains to be seen as the franchise system has been the subject of fierce criticism from many who say putting firms in positions to run the rail network with profit the aim a recipe for disaster.

Unsurprisingly, unions are keen to see a change.

The general secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), Mick Lynch, said this morning: "This latest public sector rescue of a privately operated rail service should kill off the risky and expensive nonsense of rail privatisation once and for all.

"It appears that this collapse is all about Govia playing fast and loose with their financial commitments and raises serious questions about the viability of their other operations including the busy Thameslink services.

"It's time to put the rest of Britain's failing private rail operations out of their misery, cut out the middleman and build a public railway that's fit for a green, post-Covid future."

It's time to put the rest of Britain's failing private rail operations out of their misery

However, earlier this year the government trumpeted its Great British Railways proposal - heralded as the biggest shake-up of our railways since the privatisation of the 1990s.

It envisages a more centralised transport network - absorbing Network Rail - and scrapping the existing franchise agreements.

The public body will oversee timetables, fares and the upkeep of the track and infrastructure.

However, as any long-suffering commuter will be only to quick to tell you - it's all very well promising big improvements, it's a very different thing delivering a service which its users are genuinely pleased with.

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