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Rail operator Southeastern taken over by the government says Transport Secretary Grant Shapps

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The train company which serves Kent has been taken over by the government.

In a shock announcement Transport Secretary Grant Shapps broke the news in a tweet at 7am today that Southeastern was being replaced by the government's emergency Operator of Last Resort.

The action follows allegations that the rail company has failed to pay the government £25m of "historic payments".

Mr Shapps described this as a "significant breach" of the franchise.

He said: "We won't accept anything less from the private sector than a total commitment to the passengers and transparency with taxpayers."

But he stressed: "Fares, tickets and services are unchanged for passengers."

Southeastern is run by Govia and operates services across south-east England covering London, Kent, East Sussex and the High Speed 1 Lines.

Manuel Cortes, general secretary of the Transport Salaried Staffs Association told the PA news agency: “The days of rail franchising must now be well and truly over. Time and time again we see the private sector fail and taxpayers ride to the rescue.

“We need the Government to dump the failed franchise system, end the profiteering of the train operating companies and take over the whole thing, lock stock and rails.

“There’s no time to wait for the implementation of the half-baked Williams-Shapps plan, or so-called Great British Railways pie in the sky from this Tory Government.

“Our union will now be seeking assurances that this mess in no way impacts our members’ jobs because so many of them have been true heroes on the frontline of the pandemic since day one.

Ticket machine at Southeastern railway station
Ticket machine at Southeastern railway station

“Passengers at Southeastern and right across our rail network need services they can trust and a railway that works for them, rather than private profit."

Rail, Maritime and Transport union general secretary Mick Lynch said: “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.”

The Government will take over running services on Southeastern - formally the London & South Eastern Railway (LSER) - from October 17, saying a serious breach of the franchise agreement’s “good faith” obligation in relation to financial matters was identified.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps. Picture: PA/Victoria Jones
Transport secretary Grant Shapps. Picture: PA/Victoria Jones

Ministers stressed the announcement will have no impact on frontline staff, who they said have been at the frontline of delivering services throughout the Covid pandemic.

“The decision is no reflection on their professionalism and dedication and will not affect jobs,” said the Department for Transport.

A brief statement on Southeastern’s website said: “Our passengers will see no change in our day-to-day operations.

“All tickets will remain valid after transfer and new tickets can continue to be purchased in the usual way.”

Class 800 train on trial for Southeastern
Class 800 train on trial for Southeastern

A government spokesman said further options for enforcement action, including statutory financial penalties under the Railways Act 1993, were being considered.

Mr Shapps said: “There is clear, compelling and serious evidence that LSER have breached the trust that is absolutely fundamental to the success of our railways. When trust is broken, we will act decisively.

“The decision to take control of services makes unequivocally clear that we will not accept anything less from the private sector than a total commitment to their passengers and absolute transparency with taxpayer support.

“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.”

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

Background and analysis by Paul Francis

The news of Southeastern comes just months after the government finally outlined its plans for a radical shake-up of the rail system which included ending the franchise system.

The proposals followed what was called the Williams Review and set out changes that, in the words of transport minister Grant Shapps represented “the biggest change to the railways in 25 years, ending the fragmentation of the past and bringing the network under single national leadership.”

Central to the overhaul is the creation of a new public body, Great British Railways. This would own the infrastructure, receive the fare revenue, run and plan the network and set most fares and timetables.

Franchises had succeeded in some ways but in its report outlining the new system, the government argued it was no longer the best way of running services: “In recent years, it [franchises] has proved unable to meet changing passenger demands, particularly in enabling network-wide changes such as modernising fares and ticketing. Franchising focused operators only on short-term priorities, discouraging them from investing for long-term savings or passenger benefits. It also cemented barriers to more efficient ways of working.”

Franchises would be replaced by a new commercial model: Passenger Service Contracts, which would “get trains running on time, and deliver more of the competitive private sector involvement that the railways need.”

The key difference is that operators would operate under a concession model, bidding to run rail services in accordance with a timetable and fares set by Great British Railways.

This, the government claimed, would benefit passengers and end an arrangement in which private operators “designed their own timetable, set many fares and took revenue on their part of the network.”

The replacement of franchises is, however, still some way off as the coronavirus pandemic has stalled the shake-up.

Just how rail commuters in Kent who already pay some of the highest season-ticket prices in the UK will benefit remains to be seen.

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