Chris Gibb, previously Chief Operating Officer of Virgin Rail Group and currently a non-executive director of Network Rail, was commissioned by the Department for Transport in 2016 to identify the actions required to improve the performance and passenger experience of Govia Thameslink, and in particular Southern, rail services.

His report notes that the Southern system is simultaneously running at absolute capacity at peak times, and undergoing a period of dramatic and traumatic change: introduction of Driver Controlled Operation, merger of competing GatEx, Southern and Thameslink/Great Northern TOCs, introduction of new class 700 and 717 trains, introduction of the new Thameslink infrastructure and service with 24 trains per hour through the core, and major infrastructure enhancements at London Bridge.

Gibb found that the primary cause of the system breakdown in 2016 was the industrial action over the introduction of Driver Controlled Operation (unhelpfully referred to as Driver Only Operation). This magnified the impact of the issues listed above. Resolving the industrial action was outside his remit, but he believes that if the dispute is resolved and the report’s recommendations taken, then Southern will progressively recover.

The key recommendations of the report are:

The role of the System Operator

Teamwork across the system is critical, and the custodian of the overall system integrity should be better identified, empowered and trusted: the System Operator. In the Southern/GTR area this role is taken by the Alliance Board, led by the Network Rail Route Managing Director and GTR Chief Operating Officer, who have a close working relationship. A successful system must have active people engagement at all levels, and good leadership, and the objectives and incentives of all parties must be aligned.

Another way of looking at the system diagram is that all of the elements in the concentric circles are dependent on passengers for their existence – ie no passengers, no jobs. In 2016 Railfuture advised the Rail Minister that the rail companies must create a customer service culture in which everyone is focused on what is right for the passenger.

Increased time for track maintenance

The infrastructure on the Southern network is in a poor and unreliable condition. At least £300m must be spent before the end of 2018 to improve current performance and deliver the new 2018 Thameslink timetable with an acceptable level of performance. This has been funded by DfT, but Network Rail also has to close a resource shortfall, and it is recommended that the overnight timetable be changed to allow more time for track maintenance. The changes proposed include earlier last trains, and concentrating overnight trains on the Thameslink route only.


There is a widely held view that GTR is too large. Gibb believes that there is an option to transfer the Great Northern Metro operation (ie services from Moorgate) to TfL in 2018; this accords with Railfuture’s Manifesto for London. Southern Metro services are very tightly integrated with the rest of the GTR operation, so could not be devolved before the end of the management contract in 2021. However the East Croydon – Milton Keynes service could be transferred to London Overground in 2018, integrating services on the West London Line and simplifying Southern’s operation.

Electrify Uckfield

The report recommends electrifying the route from Hurst Green to Uckfield. Performance and reliability would be better because electric trains are inherently more reliable than diesel, and it would be easier to provide a replacement train in the event of a failure. Problems on the Uckfield line have a knock-on effect on the whole Brighton Main Line because the constraints of a dedicated fleet and single line working force the Uckfield line service to be planned in the timetable first, so improved reliability of the Uckfield line will result in improved reliability of the whole Southern system.

Gibb proposes 25kV AC overhead electrification, not just because the ORR are against extending third rail, but because it would be cheaper – 25kV AC would only require one feed from the National Grid, whereas third rail DC would require several. The London & South Coast Rail Corridor Study used a cost estimate of £150m-£250m for electrification, but Gibb believes these costs are wrong; he suggests a figure in the range £75m - £95m, which is line with Railfuture estimates. He considers that redoubling would not be required, even in the event of reopening Uckfield – Lewes with a local half-hourly service. However he also proposes that to minimise land purchase, electrification equipment could be sited on the unused track bed next to the current single track; this foolish short-term cost saving would make future redoubling for a more intensive service much more expensive and difficult.

A new overnight stabling point at Crowborough for four 12 car trains, with crew recruited and signing on locally, would simplify the operation and reduce costs.

Network Rail does not have the capacity or funding to carry out this electrification, but GTR’s franchise agreement allows it to procure technical services from SNCF – so SNCF could be contracted to specify and design the electrification, and Keolis could then procure the implementation during the remaining term of the franchise. This would be a private sector investment maintained by the investor, on which a return would be earned from a surcharge on the metered electricity provided to the train operator – a small and therefore potentially attractive example of private sector funding to be considered by the DfT. To offset the extra cost to the operator, Gibb recommends that fares on the route be progressively brought into line with those on the parallel Hastings line, to reflect the improved quality of service that electrification would bring.

Railfuture campaigned to electrify Uckfield as a way of enabling longer trains without having to acquire more diesel units. We wholeheartedly support this recommendation, as the benefits of improved reliability and reduced operational cost can still be realised – and passenger capacity can be even greater than is currently available even with 10-car trains in the peaks.

Hastings – Ashford

The report recommends the transfer of the Ashford – Hastings service to South Eastern. Splitting of the Brighton – Ashford service, and this transfer are already mooted in the consultations on the GTR timetable and the South Eastern franchise. Railfuture considers that if the Brighton - Ashford service must be split, it should be run as overlapping services, Brighton – Hastings and Eastbourne – Ashford, which would provide a four trains per hour service between Eastbourne and Hastings.

Other recommendations

  • Improve flexibility of operation by reducing the number of different train types (which will also facilitate the extension of Driver Controlled Operation), improving the location of stabling facilities, and recruiting new crew closer to stabling facilities
  • Schemes to reduce overcrowding at major stations
  • Extended platform shelters to spread passengers waiting to board across the length of the train
  • Review the dispatch process to achieve ‘right-time’ departures
  • Transfer ownership of Gatwick Airport station to Gatwick Airport Ltd, who would be incentivised to develop it
  • A commercial strategy which maximises use of available capacity by reducing the range of ticket types inherited from the individual TOCs, making the fares easy for users to understand; in particular removing the premium fare from Gatwick Express as advocated by Railfuture.
  • Reduce off-peak frequency at very lightly used stations to create recovery time, and create a ‘firebreak’ in the main line schedule with fewer services between 1200 and 1400 to allow recovery from delays in the morning peak
  • Align performance metrics for Network Rail and GTR so that they are incentivised for a common objective of passenger punctuality on their journey (rather than train punctuality at destination).

Like Railfuture, Gibb supports the Network Rail plans to upgrade the BML to increase capacity and resilience. This will remove constraints at East Croydon, Haywards Heath/Keymer Junction, Clapham Junction and Victoria, and increase capacity further by introduction of digital signalling.

Gibb report:
Changes to improve the performance of the Southern network and train services and restore passenger confidence

Railfuture articles:

New approach to Uckfield
Investing for growth
Never-never railways
Putting Passengers First
Train Staff Duties
Electrify Uckfield

Railfuture campaigns:

Uckfield – Lewes reopening

Register your support for Uckfield line electrification