Govia being stripped of Southeastern should bring the curtain down on franchising and hasten the introduction of concessions

A Southeastern 465 Unit at Gravesend

Shall we just knock it on the head now? I mean, franchising. With the demise of Southeastern, it’s tempting just to expedite the move towards National Rail Concessions as soon as possible. Let’s get on with it, we know the end game and actually it looks pretty straightforward, and dare I say it, a ‘common sense’ way to run the railway. Everyone wants out currently – the longstanding owning groups look bored of the status quo, some are trying to make a buck anyway they can (rail replacement contracts), whilst most of their managers are demoralised.

The Department for Transport’s Pete Wilkinson miraculously kept trains running in record time when Covid reared its ugly head in March 2020, maybe he can rip up all the recently renegotiated contracts and put everyone out of their misery so we can crack on with the new concessions ASAP?

The news a fortnight ago about Govia being stripped of the Southeastern franchise they’ve held since April 1, 2006 due to alleged fraud, was a great surprise to those of us who have been impressed with the way they’ve run the network and the culture of the owning group. Industry colleagues, however, seem pretty silent about it. I was at a meeting with several MDs, DfT and Network Rail the following day and there was no tittle tattling or very little ‘did you see what happened to Southeastern?’ chuntering. Personally, I think even those working in the sector have been sapped of their enthusiasm right now. The life is being drained out of those in the TOCs, every week that passes, I see the pace get slower – if it goes any slower, managers will be walking backwards.

The Southeastern saga was a big news day for me. As regular readers of this column will know, I have an obsession with Southeastern. Four decades living in Orpington, my childhood spent spotting trains on the network, then the dream job as retail director when the public sector took over from Connex, before Govia assumed control a couple of years later. Words cannot explain the depth of emotion and affection I have for Southeastern – I think about it every single day of my life and always will do. I know it’s unhealthy and I cannot quite explain the whirlwind of emotions that I conjure up when I do so, but it’s just the way it is. For this reason, I find it poignant seeing this wonderful railway going through such a difficult time, another period of transition, of uncertainty at which frontline employees, particularly those from the days of Connex, will be holding their owning group in contempt, even if it is deserved or not.

Those working on the network have an affinity with their railway, rather than with the owning groups – it’s the same across the industry and anyone ‘at the centre’ in group roles who think differently is, quite frankly, deluded.

During the dark days of strikes on Southern and a botched timetable on GTR, several managers within Southeastern berated their association with Govia because they felt that the bad publicity elsewhere undermined their own reputation. In the aftermath of the DfT’s decision last week, one person messaged me and explained how upset managers at Southeastern will be that Govia will be moving on. Personally, I don’t think they will care less – those working on the network have an affinity with their railway, rather than with the owning groups – it’s the same across the industry and anyone ‘at the centre’ in group roles who think differently is, quite frankly, deluded.

I’m not putting the boot in when they are currently at a low ebb, but the reality, though, is that a rather enjoyable period is likely to follow for those at Southeastern in the next year or two, if the experience at Northern or LNER is anything to go by, and from my own memories when I was retail director at South Eastern Trains, under government ownership. Investment will be unlocked, there may be a looser rein from above in terms of scrutiny, I suspect and there won’t be distractions around other aspects that come with being part of an owning group, such as obsessing about franchise extensions, re-bidding or the wider portfolio or share price.

These musings are not meant to be disingenuous to Govia. Firstly, I place on record, as I always have done, that its stewardship of Southeastern from an operational and customer service perspective has been very good indeed. It has quietly gone about its business, without melodrama and engaged effectively with customers and the local community. This is a complex and hugely challenging railway that they have near enough mastered slickly, effectively and sans fuss.

Culturally, the organisation is absolutely light years away from that which I came across when Southeastern was transitioning over to Govia’s ownership back in 2006, when there was an unpleasant arrogance about the place as the new owners swaggered into our Friar’s Bridge Court HQ. Go Ahead’s David Brown – CEO since 2011 – is a fine man, so too his counterpart at Keolis UK, Alastair Gordon. You will be hard pushed to find two individuals at the helm who are more customer focused and driven to do the right thing for public transport.

As Southeastern MD between 2015 and July 2021, David Statham has been one of the most respected within his peer group and developed a reputation, more so than any, for pursuing social causes, particularly diversity and inclusion, and he has been popular and visible across the communities he serves.

Whilst frontline employees and many managers won’t shed a tear for the departure of Govia, they have engaged extremely well with their people, better than most, if not all, owning groups. They have always tried to ensure that franchise employees derive benefit from their stewardship at ‘the centre’ and have acted with high levels of self-awareness, empathy and respect towards the railway culture and ‘family’. Even during the prolonged strikes on Southern, they never lost sight of this and some might argue, Govia were carrying the can for the industry as a whole in trying to tackle ‘the role of the guard’ where efforts elsewhere had ultimately failed.

Although I don’t know the ‘ins and outs’ of what has happened at Southeastern, I do work on gut instinct and I just don’t believe deliberate fraud occurred. When this is suggested, folk conjure up a picture of senior managers in a smoke-filled room together, conspiring to cook the books. Whatever the circumstances, it isn’t a good look for the privatised railway and this is why I’m a real advocate of the new concession model. It’s far more straightforward, allows owning groups to concentrate on nothing else, not tripping themselves up, but just delivering a service for customers. Progression towards this state should be accelerated. Nothing is to be gained by large swathes of the sector being under the stewardship of the Operator of Last Resort and others taking orders from their owning group and their funder, the DfT. There’s already a growing antipathy among the ‘have nots’ working for privatised owning groups – they think that LNER and Northern get anything they want and with far less scrutiny and performance management. Whether that is jealously or not, I don’t know, but I hear the murmours and whispers.

The ultimate demise of Southeastern is surely the final denouement or nail in the coffin for the current structure. Unpredictable though it was, insofar that Govia have traditionally, in their management of Southeastern, been viewed almost as the ‘goody two shoes’ in the sector – and not unreasonably so – it cannot have been healthy, the continuous extension of their franchise. The almost piecemeal add-ons, never long enough to provide longevity from a planning perspective and a nearly constant negotiation of tenancy that must have been a distraction.

Southeastern’s fate and its timing as we approach the end of privatisation as we know it, made me reflect that hardly any franchise has been without scandal or ignominy

Southeastern’s fate and its timing as we approach the end of privatisation as we know it, made me reflect that hardly any franchise has been without scandal or ignominy. That Southeastern has suffered it twice now is bad enough, but, of course, East Coast has had five owners (including two stints under public sector control). Northern has perennially been in trouble, even as far back as Northern Spirit at the beginning of the century and TransPennine’s financial woes and poor performance that hit the headlines pre-pandemic were not dissimilar to those faced by First North Western around the same time that Northern Spirit was hitting the buffers. ScotRail is off quite soon, the great 15-year vision for Wales that Keolis won in 2018 lasted only a couple of years. The relatively recent history of SWR, GTR and Southern has been a tale of industrial relations and performance woes – so too West Midlands Trains and its predecessor London Midland. Meanwhile, out east, c2c and Greater Anglia have continuously seemed on the brink of implosion due to their over-reliance on London’s success.

So, the structure is broken and who is, of course, to say that it will be any different under GBR, even if the set-up intuitively feels more logical. Industry professionals are, in my view, inherently good – indeed, in many cases, excellent rounded leaders with a breadth of skills and experiences – but they deserve the right structure to be able to perform effectively and flourish. Whilst there is loyalty to their owning group or Network Rail employer, even at CEO level, I believe that, in almost all cases, they act with a duty to public transport and a motivation to do the very best for the sector.

The industry is full of fine people and the situation with Southeastern should bring down the curtain on a structure that has brought some successes, but ultimately pretty damaging headlines and an environment that hasn’t done justice to the talents of railway managers, right up to the very top. In the case of David Brown, he should be allowed to retire from full executive life with his dignity intact and a reflection of the overall contribution he has made throughout his lengthy career to the transport sector, untainted by last month’s news. So too, the senior teams at Go-Ahead and Keolis. History will show that they, more than most owning groups, did the right thing for the good of the industry and the finale for Southeastern was a blip (admittedly a not insignificant one) on their tenure of the franchise. But, it’s now time to get on and properly knock this current industry set-up on the head. It’s had its day and a slow death is the last thing anyone needs.

This article appears inside the issue 251 of Passenger Transport.

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