THE Department for Transport has been accused of leaving staff and passengers ‘in limbo’ as uncertainty continues over the future of the South Western Railway franchise.
SWR made a loss of £137 million last year, and transport secretary Grant Shapps has warned that the present operation is ‘not sustainable’.
On 22 January he made a written statement to MPs, saying: ‘SWR have not yet failed to meet their financial commitments and my Department will ensure that SWR are held to their financial obligations under the current franchise. However, as a precautionary measure, my Department must prepare suitable contingency measures.’
There are two main choices. The franchise could be terminated and transferred to the DfT’s Operator of Last Resort, which is what is going to happen to Northern at the end of February.
The DfT is also understood to have asked SWR’s owners FirstGroup and MTR to submit a new set of proposals to ease the present financial strain, but any new contract, however extensively revised, is unlikely to be very long and will probably be a tightly-specified ‘management contract’, in which the owners would effectively run the franchise under the control of the DfT.
The RMT is calling for the DfT to take over by using its Operator of Last Resort, which would amount to renationalisation. The union is also demanding a progress report.
General secretary Mick Cash said: ‘It is now two weeks since the Transport Secretary put South Western Railway on notice and we believe that it is perfectly reasonable to demand to know what is going on and when he is going to make a decision. In the meantime, staff and passengers alike are left in limbo as the existing operator continues to stagger on. This is no way to run a railway.
‘RMT members remain in dispute over safety and the role of the guard on SWR trains and the current uncertainty over the future of the franchise has blocked any chance of serious talks as the company await their fate. That is a ludicrous way to carry on.
‘RMT is happy to sit down with Grant Shapps and discuss a way forward that brings SWR into public ownership and which guarantees safety on their trains. The current impasse is damaging and unnecessary.’
The DfT has defended its record of dealing with the crisis. A spokesman said: ‘We have been very open and transparent with Parliament.’
An announcement is expected soon.