May 25 2013 Latest news:
Thursday, June 21, 2012
Consultation begins as Southeastern franchise nears end
Long-suffering rail passengers are finally being given the chance to have their say over who should take over the franchise in 2014.
The three-month consultation, launched by the Department for Transport this week, will give communities a voice on the controversial subject following years of complaints about current operator Southeastern, which runs the bulk of Kent’s services.
Its franchise is due to run out on March 31, 2014.
The firm has been fiercely criticised in recent years for grinding to a halt during freezing weather, huge hikes in fares each year and poor services to the east of the county.
Both rail users and MPs called for the operator to be stripped of its franchise unless vast improvements were made.
Ministers are now urging communities to have a say in a bid to ensure improvements are introduced by either the current operator, if its contract is renewed, or a new franchise holder.
The consultation also asks for the views of potential bidders on how they will improve service quality for passengers.
It will run until September and tenders invited in May next year. A decision will be made in December 2013 with the new contract starting in April 2014.
For passengers in east Kent, it will give them a long-awaited opportunity to voice problems experienced over the past few years, including the slowing down of classic services to make way for High Speed One (HS1).
MP for Thanet North Roger Gale has continuously called for the line between Ashford and Ramsgate to be upgraded to allow for fast trains.
Currently, HS1 is unable to pick up speed until Ashford or Ebbsfleet meaning passengers from east Kent are paying more for a high speed ticket without benefiting from a faster service. The upgrade is now due to go ahead thanks to a successful Regional Growth Fund bid.
Mr Gale has always openly voiced his view that he did not wish to see the Southeastern franchise extended or re-awarded, due to longer journey times, fewer and crowded trains, an unreliable service and much higher fares, an opinion supported by rail campaigner John Nicholson, co-founder of the Alliance of Kent Commuters.
Speaking to KoS earlier this year, he called for the current franchise holder to be stripped of the contract and said he was disgusted with the way commuters were treated.
Minister Ms Villiers said this was the chance for others, previously unable to have a voice, to have a say. “Before we let this franchise, we want to make sure we make the right decisions to maximise the benefits passengers get from it,” she said. “This consultation sets out a range of standards we expect any new operator to deliver as a matter of course, including improvements to stations, rolling out smart ticketing technology, better passenger information and good levels of punctuality. But we also want passengers and anyone else with an interest in the railways to tell us about other ways services could be improved.”
David Sidebottom, director of Passenger Focus, an independent body set up by the Government, said it was vital passengers who use and pay for rail services are “placed squarely at the heart of them”.
“Our research with passengers who use Southeastern’s services found that their priorities are; better value for money, more punctual and reliable services, improved service frequency, and increased seating.”
Southeastern has always defended the prices hikes, saying levels were out of the firm’s hands. “Over the last few years successive Governments have moved more of the cost of running the railways away from the taxpayer and more towards the people who use rail services. The amount of taxpayer subsidy we receive from the Government reduces year-on-year.” The company has also worked to improve communication with customers following its dismal performance during the cold snaps, See the consultation document at www.dft.gov.uk/consultations/dft-2012-29/.
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