Campaign group Bring Back British Rail has today begun a crowdfunded legal action to challenge the Tory government and take the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern rail franchise back into public ownership.
Southern has acquired a richly deserved reputation as one of the worst railway services in the country. Recent service cuts, using covid staff absences as an excuse, have seen Southern operate 200 fewer trains this month than they were providing even as recently as December 2021 – yet passengers still get clobbered with high fares and season ticket-holders are expected to foot the bill of an annual increase.
Govia has also recently been subject of a £73million compensation claim for incorrectly charged boundary fares.
Yet the Conservative government plans to award a new six-year contract to Govia Thameslink Railway at the end of March.
Bring Back British Rail’s legal action will challenge this decision and also demand transparency over a £25million fraud by Govia subsidiary, London and Southeastern Railway.
The action is the latest stage in Bring Back British Rail’s CrowdJustice legal fund, which had its first victory in 2018 when the East Coast Main Line was brought back into public ownership as LNER. The action is backed by the Association of British Commuters.
The Southeastern rail franchise was renationalised in October, after the Department for Transport uncovered the multi-million-pound fraud by Southeastern.
In a letter to the Transport Select Committee, rail minister Chris Heaton-Harris implied that LSER’s actions involved long-running and active deceit since 2014.
He stated that the company “did not act transparently and in good faith” and “concealed the money owed through financial reporting over several years”.
DfT civil servants began asking questions in March 2020, but even then Southeastern continued to “minimise the risk of detection by the department”.
Transport Minister Grant Shapps has stated that there is “clear, compelling and serious evidence” that LSER “breached good faith” with the government.
And yet, the Department for Transport has allowed Govia’s owning groups, Go-Ahead and Keolis, to run the fraud investigation themselves, along with Deloitte (Go-Ahead’s external auditor since 2015). The investigation has been conducted under conditions of strict commercial confidentiality and our initial legal inquiries have found that the DfT never intends to release this report to the public.
A staggering 90per cent of the Go-Ahead Group’s revenue is guaranteed by public contracts. They are the largest bus operator in London and operate around 11per cent of the UK’s regional bus market. In addition to the GTR contract renewal, the Go-Ahead Group is soon set to sign new Enhanced Partnership bus agreements with local authorities all over Britain. The group’s subsidiaries received millions of pounds more in covid subsidies during the pandemic.
“We believe the investigation is highly compromised,” Bring Back British Rail said today in launching its legal campaign.
“The Go-Ahead Group has now admitted to ‘serious errors’ and just had to delay their accounts for the second time this year, reportedly due to Deloitte refusing to sign them off.”
“It is now crucial to determine whether they can be trusted with any more public money.”
Bring Back British Rail’s legal team will shortly begin official correspondence with the Department for Transport to demand full transparency on the Southeastern investigation, and determine the extent to which owning groups, Go-Ahead and Keolis, are implicated in the alleged fraud.
They will argue that Govia, the Go-Ahead Group and Keolis should be heavily penalised for any involvement in fraudulent activities, and that public ownership is the best solution for Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern.
In the event that a new contract is awarded to Govia Thameslink Railway, the lawyers will consider whether this can be challenged by judicial review.
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