Transport Secretary Chris Grayling said he had apologised “many, many times” already, after he was criticised by MPs investigating train timetable chaos that gripped parts of the network earlier this year.
In a scathing report on the problems caused when new schedules came into effect in May, the Transport Select Committee said he should have been more proactive in preventing it.
They said swift reforms were needed to restore passengers’ trust in the railways, and said the “chaotic roll-out” of alterations to services across the country should be the catalyst for “genuine change” for people who rely on the network.
The MPs said Transport Secretary Chris Grayling was not fully informed of the serious problems caused by the changes, but they added it was not reasonable for him to absolve himself of all responsibility.
— Transport Committee (@CommonsTrans) December 4, 2018
Mr Grayling had the ultimate authority to judge trade-offs between competing commercial interests and he should have been more proactive, said the report.
Mr Grayling told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme he had apologised “many, many times across the summer for what happened”, adding: “Clearly we did not ask tough enough questions.
“The reality is, at no point did I get the information I would have needed to intervene, and we must make sure that never happens again, and I absolutely accept responsibility for my department and myself not asking the tough enough questions.”
Mr Grayling spoke as the Department for Transport (DfT) said that Southern Railway and Thameslink network GTR had been hit with sanctions that would see it make no profit this year after the botched timetable overhaul.
The operator has been ordered to pay £15 million for service improvements, with the DfT saying it was “holding GTR to account” for its role in widespread disruption across the rail network.
GTR, which is majority owned by transport group Go-Ahead and runs lines including the troubled Southern Railway service, will make no profit this year and will make a reduced profit for the remainder of its franchise until September 2021 as part of the measures.
In their report, the Transport Committee said passengers most affected by the delays and cancellations should receive a discount on 2019 tickets.
National rail timetabling needs “genuinely independent” oversight, located outside Network Rail, to avoid being affected by commercial and political pressure, it added.
Last week’s announcement that rail fares would increase by an average of 3.1% added “insult to passengers’ injury”, said Lilian Greenwood, who chairs the committee.
She said: “It is extraordinary, and totally unacceptable, that no-one took charge of the situation and acted to avert the May timetabling crisis.
“Instead of experiencing the benefits of much-needed investment in our railways, around one in five passengers experienced intensely inconvenient and costly disruption to their daily lives.
“There was extraordinary complacency about protecting the interests of passengers, who were very badly let down.
“The complex system by which we operate our rail services failed to cope with the scale of change planned for May.
“The Secretary of State has announced a year-long independent rail review.
“While the need for fundamental reform is beyond doubt, passengers cannot wait until 2020 for key lessons to be learned and reforms implemented.”
Mr Grayling said that passengers had already received a discount of “nearly 10%” under a compensation package.
He said the main problem facing the network was that lines were running at full capacity.
He told Today: “They are now so full that you cannot have a railway as fragmented as it is at the moment.
“That is the most significant underlying problem of the railway.
“The mistake I have made was to say we will change that through a process of evolution which we had started.
“We now need revolution and that is what the Williams review is going to lead to.”
Unions attacked Mr Grayling, with Mick Cash, leader of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, saying: “He was asleep at the wheel of a broken, fragmented, over-complicated system that is solely of his party’s creation.
“He has presided over a collective systemic failure and passengers deserve nothing less than his resignation.”
Anthony Smith, chief executive of watchdog Transport Focus, added: “This industry knows it must deliver a smooth set of changes when the next round of timetable changes takes effect this Sunday.
“They must show they’ve learned lessons after a torrid summer of timetable crisis, and are acting to improve performance.
“Looking to the future, Transport Focus believes someone has to be placed clearly in charge of timetable changes.”