Chris Gibb, former chief operating officer of Virgin Trains and the man seconded to Network Rail to spearhead reliability improvements on the West Coast main line, has now reported on the issues currently affecting performance on the Southern rail network.

His review was put in place by the Secretary of State for Transport and, amongst other things, he was tasked to: “Identify what actions are needed immediately to improve Southern rail performance and passenger experience including actions to ensure closer working and more effective alignment between GTR and NR, and to produce a plan for the implementation of agreed recommendations and work with the management teams of Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), Network Rail (NR), and Department for Transport (DfT), to ensure this is delivered by the end of the year.” A note on the terms of reference clearly stated: “The management of industrial relations remain a matter to be managed by Govia Thameslink Railway Limited.”

The report went to government on 30 December 2016. It was not released by the DfT, causing rail union RMT to demand “that the Government immediately publish a detailed report into the basket-case Southern Rail franchise which has been kept under wraps by the Transport Department since the back end of last year.” That was on 15 June – the DfT released the report a week later.

In it, Chris Gibb commented: “On Southern all the elements of the system have been under strain: unreliable infrastructure, a timetable that is very tight and with overcrowded peak services, some key stations that are overcrowded, depots that are full and for historic reasons are in the wrong place, and people that are involved in informal and formal industrial action. The system cannot possibly work to passengers’ satisfaction with these components in this state.”

There are a variety of reasons for this. “Many parties have, with the best of intentions, driven elements of change, all of which have come together at this time to cause the overall system to fail.” He then lists ten elements, only two of which refer to driver-only operation (DOO) – “The GTR franchise agreement, specified by DfT, … with the most efficient money proposition and an exceptionally high number of ‘committed obligations’, including one to extend Driver Only Operation and introduce On Board Supervisors” and “A policy of opposition to Driver Only Operation, led by RMT and ASLEF, and supported through votes cast by many of the people; their members.”

However, under a section entitled ‘Fixing the broken system’, Gibb comments: “Without doubt the priority is to resolve the current Southern industrial relations issues. This is outside my remit. Recovering from such a bitter dispute will take time for all involved, but I do believe that if the actions in this report are followed, or are already being implemented, then the system can recover fully in stages and deliver a good service by the end of 2018.”
There then follows a number of recommendations on how to make the route more efficient, including moving the East Croydon to Miton Keyes service over to TfL, electrifying the Uckfield branch, making changes to servicing facilities, changing stabling locations and reducing the number trains stopping at little-used stations.

It is a long and detailed report with a large number of recommendations and 11 appendices. Paul Plummer, chief executive of the Rail Delivery Group, which represents the train operators as well as Network Rail, commented: “As Chris Gibb’s thorough and considered report highlights, there is much more work to do and it is vital that the unions play their part and bring industrial action to a halt. We want to make his recommendations work, one railway ensuring that we meet our customers’ needs and expectations and make the sustained improvements that everyone wants to see.”

Mick Cash, general secretary of the RMT union, was less impressed: “No wonder the Government have sat on the Gibb report for seven months. It’s taken them that long to slice and fillet it into a document that they can spin up as an attack on the unions and the staff.” This despite the fact that Chris Gibb stressed that trade-union relationships weren’t in his remit.

Still, there’s actually a lot of good stuff in the report, and implementing its recommendations should bring about significant improvements.

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