South Western Railway at risk of losing franchise

South Western Railway at risk of losing franchise

Way back in those giddy, care-free days of March 2017, I warned you that the new South Western Railway would be terrible.

It seemed you were all too busy celebrating the incumbant (Stagecoach South West Trains) losing their contract to notice. Do you believe me now?

Let's go back over the history. First and MTR only took over the franchise in August 2017. By April 2018, stakeholders were talking about increased delays.

In July 2018, First and MTR admitted that they wouldn't be able to meet all their contractual commitments, that profits were disappointing and reliability was poor.

The strikes kept going on, becoming one of the worst strikes in UK rail history in December 2019.

In January 2020, SWR admitted that there would be significant losses, and they were having to renegotiate their franchise which could see it withdrawn. We know that can happen - it has happened to Northern, and East Coast - twice.

While all of this is going on, the staff (even if you hate the staff, you must accept some of them are decent people) are having to put up with the stress of having customers shout at them and assault them all day. As for customers: they have the stress of every day being a gamble, while listening to the government blow its own trumpet over a new line to Birmingham.

South Western Railway logo

Why has it all gone wrong?

First and MTR were so desperate to win the contract which created South Western Railway that they made promises they couldn't commit to.

A lot of the issues which have led to this catastrophe are not really SWR's fault.

Network Rail's infrastructure is quite literally falling apart under the wheels of the trains. This is disrupting services, and is a fact that all rail users should be seriously concerned about and pressing for action over.

A competent operator should have seen this coming. The South Western franchise is thought to be the most congested railway network in Europe. It's pretty damn obvious you need to have your eye on the ball, or at the absolute least be honest that there's a bumpy road ahead.

Unfortunately, SWR made franchise commitments which distracted them from their actual task of caring for this ticking time bomb of a rail network.

Renegotiating the staff contracts is a great example of this: whatever you think of the unions, we all knew that this was going to end up with a lot of strikes - I even said this in my March 2017 prediction.

Sure, if you've got loads of space in your timetable, spare staff lying around and spare cash to make up for any lost revenue. That's the time you start playing with staff contracts and not caring about strikes.

But when the Jenga tower is about to collapse? It's pretty obvious that you're supposed to leave well alone.

What will happen to South Western Railway next?

It's too early to say.

Recent experience suggests First and MTR will lose their stake in South Western Railway, and it will transfer to government control under an arrangement known as Operator of Last Resort. This won't actually lead to any changes, but will make people feel a little better about the chaos.

After that, who knows? Britain's rail network is in tatters. Something pretty damn big is needed to put things right.

Still, at least it has taken the limelight off Southern for a bit.

If you want to tell me I'm wrong or just leave anonymous abuse like half the internet seems to do these days, please use the comments box below.

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Travel historian, presenter, producer. I love the places people pass through along their journey.

I research and write about how our need to get around continues to shape our world through roads, railways, airports and whole new towns.

My thoughts and/or research have been published by the likes of Truck & Driver, BBC local radio, Daily Express, The Guardian, Mail Online and The Independent (detail).

I can't tell you how many toll booths I've been through. But it's a lot of toll booths.

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© 2020 Johnathan Randall.