The Gibb Report - Analysed

For those of you like myself who travel regularly via Southern Rail or the remaining parts Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) which includes Thameslink, Gatwick Express and Great Northern, you will know that for a considerable time now, and crucially before any industrial action, train services on GTR have not performed at a level as customers and passengers that we would expect. Therefore, when Chris Gibb, a renowned railwayman with years of experience and a senior Network Rail employee, was drafted in to analyse the problems mainly with the Southern part of GTR, it was hoped that his analysis would be not just acted on, but seen as a first step to improve that experience. The first thing he noted was that it needed to be a review of GTR on the whole, not just the Southern part.

The report was completed in December 2016, and for months there has been campaigning to have the report released, in its entirety. Finally, after the UK General Election earlier in June 2016, the report finally made its way into the public domain, although crucially with some editing (more on that later). You can visit this page to download the PDF of the report for yourself, and it's well worth a read to see the analysis not just by Gibb, but by consultancy firm LEK, who Gibb commissioned to analyse the performance regimes and how they can be improved. So, having read the report in full a few times, what can we learn from it?

GTR's performance was already bad before any industrial action

Whilst Chris Gibb attributes the primary cause of the System Breakdown in 2016, as he puts it, to industrial action, and before that claiming the same line of "unusually high levels of staff sickness" that GTR had also claimed as the company line in a reply to a complaint I made last year about their services, it's important to note that even before the onset of any industrial action, the performance of GTR was steadily going downhill, more so once Southern was part of GTR in July 2015. The graph that LEK provides clearly shows this (click for larger version, also in page 93 of the Gibb Report PDF):

GTR Worst Performing

There are also other attributing factors which are part of the reason, which Gibb himself makes clear in section 3.2.1 that GTR won the bid due to "the most efficient money proposition and an exceptionally high number of committed obligations" - and in addition, "Insufficient numbers of people, particularly drivers at the start of the franchise". Now, in effect, if it was a bid that meant less staff (and less expense) then the shortages could be exposed at any time, particularly if (for example) an overtime ban took place.

Notably also Gibb states in section 4 that "Without doubt the priority is to resolve the current Southern industrial relations issues" - and this, remember, was a report for the DfT. It further mentions in section 9 that "Of course any decision relating to franchise termination should also take into account the current DOO related dispute with RMT and ASLEF. Whilst you are already determining the strategic direction of this dispute.." implying that the DfT have a hand in the strategic direction, more so than GTR. Which leaves us to questions such as who within the DfT are pulling the strings behind the scenes, and why the likes of Chris Grayling attempt to distance themselves from the dispute and put the onus on GTR when in fact the strategic direction is of the department's own making.

Not enough drivers compounding to performance issues

In addition, section 4.1.5 is particularly damning in this respect - not only of GTR's bid but the DfT's failure to see the staffing levels proposed as a suitable risk. Gibb comments that "A strategic decision is required on whether to recruit on the basis of no overtime being worked, with sufficient headcount to support diversionary route knowledge, rapid service recovery after incidents, and how to treat Sundays. I understand that at least one losing bidder for the TSGN franchise was told in feedback that they had too many drivers in their bid. I have not seen the evidence, but it may have been the case that the bidder with the fewest drivers won, and the process failed to accurately evaluate the risks of this."

The recent announcement of an overtime ban by the ASLEF union and analysis of the subsequent Southern timetable shows that the service will be running at around 75% of its normal capacity. Although to some degree, and having asked many train companies (not all of which were forthcoming), they do rely on a little overtime, to rely on that amount is clearly a recipe for the reliance on plenty of goodwill as well as good relations between staff and management. Also, worth noting in Appendix 2, that the GTR driver recruitment programme isn't scheduled to complete until April 2018.

No mention of future plans for passengers with disabilities

Argubaly the most frustrating feature of the Gibb report is what is not in the report and in his proposed plans for improvement is the lack of consideration for passengers with disabilities. Let me make this statement clear: Every passenger has the right to turn up and go. Everyone. In 2017, equality should be the norm, not an inconvenience. There is for example mention of station improvements, but none that would improve access. Even Appendix 2, The Plan, makes no mention whatsoever of approved improvements apart from mobility improvements at London Victoria, which was supposed to be due in place by March 2017.

The recent release of a paper by the Association of British Commuters (ABC), which was written for ATOC (now Rail Delivery Group), hidden from public view (and subsequently released by RDG a few days later), clearly shows that the issue of access is clearly one that should be taken very seriously. More alarmingly, all the reports into Driver Only Operation (DOO) also show a considerable lack of foresight into the needs of all passengers. Running a DOO train without a guard or On-Board Supervisor (OBS) to an unmanned station means if a passenger cannot board, GTR are in effect breaking the law and the Equality Act. This is not on.

Recommendations to transfer some services elsewhere

One interesting recommendation from the report is to transfer some of the services currently run by Southern and Great Northern as part of GTR over to Transport for London (TfL) - a move which would have been opposed by Chris Grayling due to his already stated preference in a letter to the then Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, to not handing additional suburban services to a Labour Mayor. That in itself is somewhat ironic since further moves (Southern "Metro" services to TfL example) may have repositioned Epsom in London Zone 6, as many Southern suburban trains terminate there (which Grayling has apparently been championing for some time.) The proposed moves from GTR to TfL would have been:

Gibb mentions that it may be seen as "punishment" for GTR to hand these over, but it would also be further devolution of suburban services at the same time. Considering Gibb mentions at the start of Appendix 4 that GTR is already too large, this and an additional recommendation to transfer Ashford > Hastings also to Southeastern does make some sense.

Station Improvements not funded in "The Plan"

In Appendix 2, "The Plan" there are various programmes to improve the performance of GTR. There have already been some of those that are funded, such as reduction of vegetation trackside to avoid "leaves on the line", and new Class 700 trains on Thameslink (albeit with a host of teething problems.) However, what is notable is what plans are currently not funded for improvement, a key one being the London Victoria mezzanine and station upgrade. Anyone who boards between platforms 15 to 19 knows that overcrowding happens regularly, and the lack of capacity is a clear safety risk, noticably when services start to fall behind. Improvements such as these should not have been placed on hold and funded, so that passengers would see a clear improvement in passenger flow and access.

Other station improvements would have been at Norwood Junction (which ironically would have ensured step free access at this busy station), an extra platform at Reigate, and track and signalling changes at Battersea Park, Bermondsey and Wallington in a bid to further improve the "turnback" of trains and so to allow safe berthing of trains to cope with peak period demand. The only piece of good news is that Redhill will become another station with the ubiquitous Platform 0, meaning more trains can run on the North Downs lines, and for long suffering passengers there, that has to be a positive.

Overnight train changes were planned for January 2017

Many passengers have been up in arms about the changes to the overnight train services that came into force from the May 2017 timetable onwards, meaning passengers for the Brighton Main Line needed to board a Thameslink train at St Pancras or Blackfriars instead of a Southern train at London Victoria. As previously revealed, these changes were due to a recommendation in Appendix 2, "The Plan", further detailed in Appendix 3, "The Overnight Railway". Appendix 2 shows that this was originally planned to have been put in place in January 2017, allowing for more overnight works in a bid to improve reliability. Had these plans been put in place at the recommended time, it may have allowed for earlier track improvements and less breakdowns at peak times, or over-running weekend engineering works.

Electrification of the Uckfield Line

One major positive to take from the Gibb report is the recommendation to improve a number of lines, most notably electrification of the Uckfield line between Hurst Green and Uckfield, meaning that the line would not solely rely on the Class 171 diesel trains that currently operate out of Selhurst depot for this line - and in addition have sidings at Crowborough to make the trains closer to their location of operation. All common sense, and a good recommendation.

The mix of fares is a commercial mess

In Appendix 6, Gibb correctly states that "Most of the fares and commercial strategy is still how it was left by the previous three TOCs, and each of the brands offers brand specific fares." This is very true. One example showed twenty five different fare types available on the Brighton Main Line, and five different season tickets from Brighton to London, with a price difference of £1,450 pa between the cheapest and most expensive. Simplification is recommended by Gibb, with an emphasis towards advance tickets for off-peak, including Gatwick Express (the fact this service is a premium means not everyone uses it, and prefers to use Southern or Thameslink instead) and so make sensible use of the capacity available at off-peak times.

Other recommendations are that season tickets so all South London termini (Victoria, London Bridge) are similarly priced, "carnet" style ticketing is available for those who occasionally work from home and where a season ticket is more expensive, reviewing First Class (which Gibb observed many pay for just to ensure a seat) and looking at other ways of guaranteeing seating. One other notable mention was that any 2017 fares increases should have taken into consideration the poor performance during 2016 - and so was a 2% or so increase really justified?

Where Is Appendix 9?

Another key section missing from the report is Appendix 9, which is in effect a full list of recommendations as to what changes should happen in terms of GTR and the current agreement. It was claimed to be not included due to "commercially sensitive information". However, by not being present, it can only further present questions as to if the recommendations that were present sat uncomfortably with the DfT. What we can see from section 9 of the main report is that GTR is not in steady state, that doing nothing is not an option (always one of the three PRINCE2 options of project management), and negotiations in terms of any disputes must be entered into.


On the whole, the Gibb report certainly offers plenty of scope for improvements to resolve many of the day to day issues that GTR face, and a number of the recommendations should be cautiously welcomed. However, the lack of concern of passengers with disabilities is a missed opportunity to enforce DfT/GTR to do more and improve, and the sole blame being placed on unions for the current situation when all parties including Network Rail, the DfT and GTR, and the unions are equally to blame is almost too convenient an analysis to suit the line that the DfT and GTR's press wish the passengers to believe.

Ultimately, what we as passengers see is a railway that is understaffed in terms of drivers, too fragile a network in that one small problem results in hours of knock on effects, and one that doesn't give value for money. Passenger confidence and trust in GTR have broken down, perhaps irreparably (their "let's strike back" attempt to troll the unions last year being one PR disaster too far for some) and you only have to see the amount of anger vented at length on social media when things do go wrong. Granted, some of that should be directed at Network Rail and ultimately the DfT, who allow GTR to run the operation as a "no risk" concession when other franchises would have had theirs removed, but it goes to show that improvements need to continue. Finally, the positive recommendations from the report should have been effective earlier, and the report not buried for six months for selective redacting and editing by the DfT.