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Era of Southeastern trains is over as government takes over Kent rail routes


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Another chapter dawns on the county's rails today as the government takes over the running of train services from Southeastern.

But the chances are you'll be hard pushed to notice the difference after the train company relinquished its grip on the timetable in the early hours of this morning - to be replaced by SE Trains.

Southeastern has operated the bulk of Kent's rail services since 2006
Southeastern has operated the bulk of Kent's rail services since 2006

In a shock announcement at the end of last month, Transport Minister Grant Shapps confirmed he was stripping the franchise from owners Govia.

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

It comes after it was accused of failing to declare £25m of "historic taxpayer funding" which should have been returned to the Department for Transport (DfT).

Mr Shapps said investigations had "identified a serious breach of good faith" and that he had ordered the Operator of Last Resort - the DfT subsidiary which has taken over failing franchises from the private sector - to step in.

Govia says it "acknowledges that errors have been made in relation to the franchise" and insists the money has since been repaid.

Grant Shapps is ushering in a huge raft of significant changes to the rail industry
Grant Shapps is ushering in a huge raft of significant changes to the rail industry

Southeastern operated its last services in the early hours of this morning before the curtain finally came down on its 25-year grip on a franchise servicing one of the country's busiest rail networks.

So what can you expect to see that is different when you board a service today? The answer is probably very little.

The branding will remain the same, the timetable will operate as normal, frontline staff will continue in their roles and, if you've booked a ticket in advance, or have a season ticket, it will continue to be valid.

In a statement on its website, Southeastern has informed passengers: "We will continue to be known as Southeastern across our stations and trains. There will be no changes in our day-to-day services, our timetables, or our customer services, as a result of the transfer.

"We want to reassure you that the way you travel with us will not change from October 17. All tickets, railcards and Key cards for travel on Southeastern trains will still be valid for the dates shown. This also includes all season tickets and pre-purchased tickets, including if part of your journey is with another rail company."

Tickets will remain valid despite the change in management
Tickets will remain valid despite the change in management

But the key issue will be with what comes next.

Kent's rail service has been a challenging one for decades - fuelled by an ever-growing number of passengers using the service at peak times, a sometimes fragile infrastructure and commuters who are notoriously quick to complain. And few would argue without good reason given the costs of regular, peak-time travel.

In announcing the switch from Southeastern, Grant Shapps added: "Under the new operator, we will prioritise the punctual, reliable services passengers deserve, rebuild trust in this network, and the delivery of the reforms set out in our Plan for Rail – to build a modern railway that meets the needs of a nation.”

That will be closely monitored - but the government knows it cannot afford to fail.

The Transport Minister has made plenty of noise about reforming the nation's rail network. In May, he published details of the Great British Railways proposal which promised to shake-up the running of our trains.

Southeastern operates services for the final time this weekend. Picture: Southeastern
Southeastern operates services for the final time this weekend. Picture: Southeastern

Key to that was the blurring of the current divide between Network Rail - which owns and handles the rail network's infrastructure - and the companies operating the trains themselves.

Instead it appears we will have Great British Railways as the umbrella organisation overseeing all the rail services - the first time one organisation has been responsible since the days of British Rail and pre-privatisation.

The public body will provide, says the DfT, "a single point of national leadership for the railways" and "co-ordinate the whole network with a focus on customers, both passenger and freight, ensuring that safe, high quality and punctual services can be achieved".

Regional division will be part of its make-up to bring "decision-making much closer to the people and communities it serves".

Earlier this week, the government revealed the existing franchise structure would be scrapped in November and instead replaced with what are called 'passenger service contracts (PSCs)'.

Southeastern's high-speed services have been one of its success stories
Southeastern's high-speed services have been one of its success stories

The DfT said: "The new system of PSCs will build on the concession model used by Transport for London (TfL) overground services and many railways around the world. PSCs will focus operators on running services efficiently and providing reliable and high-quality services for passengers.

"This is a major change from franchising, where each private operator designed its own timetable, set fares and took revenue on its part of the network. Competitions were based on complex and uncertain revenue forecasts, as most operators took both revenue and cost risk. This will end under most PSCs.

"Partners will be procured to deliver services and collaborate with Great British Railways to improve passenger services across the network."

Quite what it will all look like eventually, we will soon find out. As to if it all pays off? That will be judged by the most discerning of critics: rail users.

Southeastern branding is likely to remain in place - despite the change
Southeastern branding is likely to remain in place - despite the change

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