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Rail minister Claire Perry admits she's considered quitting over Southern Rail

Published 13/07/2016

Tim Loughton hit out at Southern Railway
Tim Loughton hit out at Southern Railway
Rail minister Claire Perry says she has considered quitting over the problems with Southern Rail

Rail Minister Claire Perry has admitted she has repeatedly thought about quitting over the failures of Southern Rail - but believes it would not help.

The Tory frontbencher said she would be "falling on my sword" if she thought it would resolve the difficulties faced by commuters.

Ms Perry added the current situation "feels like a failure" although she insisted stripping Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) of the franchise would not make Southern's problems disappear and "do almost nothing".

Her defence of the Government's response came after Tory former minister Tim Loughton urged the minister to "get a grip" with the operator, which continues to struggle despite cutting 341 trains a day.

Southern began using a reduced timetable on Monday, claiming the interim move was aimed at making services more "resilient".

It blames service failures on high levels of staff sickness as well as industrial action by the Rail, Maritime and Transport union prompted by a dispute over the role of conductors.

MPs used a Westminster Hall debate to pressure Ms Perry over the continued problems with the service, and renew calls for GTR to be stripped of the franchise.

In her reply, Ms Perry said: "I've been asked repeatedly why don't we just take the franchise back - and the reason is I can't.

"It's not in breach of a franchise contract right now."

Ms Perry added: "We have a contractual structure, there are a series of inputs and outputs, the company is not in breach of those."

She also said: "At the moment I do not have the levers to pull to take the franchise back.

"So what are we going to do? If I thought it would help by me falling on my sword, I would.

"I've thought about it repeatedly. I don't like failure, I don't fail at stuff in my life, this feels like a failure.

"Could I force the end of the franchise early, could I do something contractually to force the franchise early, would the problems actually go away?

"Would the industrial action and staffing problems stop? No.

"Would the investment programme create anything more certain for passengers? No.

"It would do, in my view, almost nothing.

"It feels like that scene in Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff when the test pilot is auguring into the ground shouting 'We've tried A, we've tried B, we've tried C, nothing is actually working'."

Ms Perry also dismissed the idea that "nobody cares", adding management and frontline staff do.

Ms Perry said she wants to bring compensation plans forward for passengers while also speeding up the devolution of train services to City Hall in London.

She said: " I want to bring compensation plans forward - it involves a negotiation with other parts of Government given this is revenue that's coming into the Government coffers but I'm very keen to deliver compensation."

Ms Perry added: "Over the medium-term I also want to accelerate the plan for services for London devolution.

"I think it is absolutely right to do so and it will deliver capacity on those inner-London and suburban routes.

"I don't care about the politics, I don't care that we've got a Labour mayor, I just want those trains to run better."

Opening the debate, Mr Loughton told MPs that Southern's performance and punctuality figures show 23% of services under the revised timetable were late or cancelled on Tuesday.

Mr Loughton also mocked the company by suggesting it should run no trains to ensure it has a 100% record in completing its timetable.

He said the existing problems were a "national disgrace for Britain's largest rail passenger carrier".

Mr Loughton said of the new emergency timetable: "Last night I got the figures for the PPM (public performance measure) for July 12.

"With the emergency timetable, with 341 planned cancellations, that's 341 fewer trains running, the PPM was 77% - barely three-quarters, the second day in of the emergency timetable - 2,800 trains ran, 2,172 were more or less on time, 620 were late and 122 were cancelled or very late.

"The result of the emergency timetable is there's less choice for customers and more overcrowding, but presumably fewer fines."

In her reply, Ms Perry said as of noon on Wednesday the timetable was delivering 90.3% PPM on Southern, adding: "It could all go wrong later in the day but it looks as if it's starting to work.

"We need to monitor that closely, it will be in place for one month."

Mr Loughton ( East Worthing and Shoreham) earlier also accused Ms Perry of contributing to "sloganising headlines" by her comments on the rail unions, adding such an approach does nothing to resolve the problems for passengers.

Mr Loughton added: "She has really got to get a grip."

He requested that GTR is stripped of the franchise by the end of 2016 if it fails to sort the issues before the beginning of September.

Labour's Lilian Greenwood, a former shadow transport secretary, described how a person fainted on one of Southern's trains but "was fortunately not hurt because there were so many people crowded around her she couldn't even fall down".

Tory MP Nusrat Ghani (Wealden) said: "One of my constituents is so late picking up their child from nursery that they're worried the standard procedure for most nurseries is to contact social services when parents are late.

"This is damaging people's lives."

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