It appears my tweet yesterday regarding the extension of Southeastern's franchise to 2014 may have upset the Comms team, but having looked in detail at their announcement I feel they should be grateful it wasn't worse!
Southeastern made three announcements yesterday. Firstly, they have been awarded an extension to their current contract which will now run until March 2014. Secondly, there is due to be a consultation on a new compensation system thought to be in place by mid-2011 and thirdly, a high speed service will be operating from Maidstone West to Strood as of May.
Franchise Agreement Extension
With regards to the contract extension, first of all I should point out that this was not wholly unexpected. As per the franchise agreement negotiated by the previous Government in 2005, Southeastern’s contract was due to expire on 31 March 2011 with an option within the agreement for a two year extension if they pass certain criteria and a performance based review. Given Southeastern appear to have met these targets, it does beg the question that if they can be awarded an extension to their contract, despite consistently scoring in the bottom 3 or 4 of Train Operating Companies for punctuality, what on earth did the previous Government negotiate as the criteria? Unsurprisingly commuting constituents are reacting with words such as "angry" "livid" "baffled".
Clearly they were not robust enough and unfortunately it is those who use the service who will continue to suffer unless Southeastern make significant improvements. What we need in the future, and I will press Ministers on the issue, is more challenging performance targets incorporated into franchise agreements. It is no use if they are set low enough to allow poor services to continue indefinitely.
Looking to the future, I do hope Southeastern do not see this as an endorsement of their service and rather as a last reprieve and an opportunity to make significant improvements.
Proposed Compensation Scheme
I've had a lot of enquiries about the new proposed compensation scheme. Little in the way of specific details have emerged as of yet, however the intention is to compensate those whose train arrives at the destination over 30 minutes late.
Whilst this is a welcome development, I will be keen to see the specific details, particularly how this impacts season ticket holders, does it apply in bad weather, and is it only for those who disembark at the final destination? I will also be interested to learn why such a system was not in place beforehand, when it operates on other Govia (Southeastern's parent) franchises such as Southern. It is being described as a "silver lining" by some passenger groups but I prefer to wait and see. A very small percentage of trains run 30 minutes late and I think my commuting constituents would rather see a proper independent audit of the end of year punctuality statistics, broken down by line, and compensation schemes based on that rather than a programme operational on few occasions.
High Speed Service from Maidstone West
Finally Southeastern announced a high speed service will operate from Maidstone West to Strood. This is great news for those who live in Maidstone but means nothing but likely disruption for my constituents and those who commute from Rochester. The service will not be stopping at Aylesford, New Hythe or Snodland and details have yet to be announced as to how this will affect the current stopping service operating on the Medway Valley Line. Any reduction in the regularity of the service that many train users currently rely on will not be acceptable. Yesterday's announcement also gave no further details on future plans for the West Malling line, a point I am sure Sir John Stanley and I will be raising again with Southeastern and the Minister.
So, all in all my tweet yesterday was rather moderate given that I am failing to see the good news for my constituents in the announcement from Southeastern. The company is fortunate in my view that the Government was contractually obliged to extend its franchise for two years and I hope that they now see this as an opportunity to show its passengers, who pay a ridiculously high price to use their service, what kind of service it can run. Responsibility for the next franchise negotiations is now fully in the hands of the new Government and Kent MPs will be watching with close interest.