The Department for Transport's (DfT) management of two of its most important rail franchises has been ‘completely inadequate’ and could suggest wider weaknesses, MPs have said.
In a new report, the Public Accounts Committee laid the blame for the ‘appalling’ level of delays and cancellations since the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise (TSGN) started in 2014 at the door of the DfT, Network Rail and operator Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR).
At one point less than two thirds of trains arrived on time. MPs said this ‘totally unacceptable state of affairs’ was due to ‘a catalogue of failures’.
On the East Coast, where the Virgin Trains East Coast franchise will be brought to an end early in 2020, MPs said the DfT had failed to learn the lessons from previous failures of the franchise, and again allowed the operator to promise more than it could deliver.
MPs said they were ‘concerned that the Department could terminate its contract with VTEC yet still give the operator the opportunity to run the franchise again in the future’.
Committee chair, Meg Hillier MP, said: ‘The operation of the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise has been a multi-faceted shambles causing untold misery for passengers.
'Meanwhile, the East Coast franchise has failed for a third time because of wildly inaccurate passenger growth forecasts. In both cases the Government appears to have seen its task as simply to contract out the service, with wholly inadequate consideration given to passengers’ best interests and behaviour.'
She added that GTR’s new timetables, which begin next month, ‘will be a critical test for the operator and we will be watching closely’.
MPs said the DfT was too ambitious about what could be achieved on the GTR franchise and overlooked the poor condition of the infrastructure.
It was also ‘ambivalent about the risk of industrial action and neglected to engage constructively with rail unions,’ MPs said. It ‘failed to see, or chose not to see, the perfect storm of an ambitious upgrade programme coupled with plans to increase driver controlled operation of trains’.
The committee acknowledged ‘some improvement recently’ and signs that Network Rail and GTR are working together more effectively, but added: ‘We remain sceptical that this will address the serious and deep-rooted problems we have identified’.
The DFT called the report ‘imbalanced’ and said it failed to grasp the complexity of the situation.
A spokesperson said: ‘It fails to understand that the department expressly created the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise to deliver the Thameslink Programme – a once-in-a-generation infrastructure upgrade to revolutionise North-South journeys through London for millions of passengers. New Thameslink trains are already in service and are transforming performance for customers.
‘The delay and disruption Southern passengers experienced due to strike action in 2016 was unacceptable, but services have improved dramatically and a brand new programme will begin next month bringing further improvements to their journeys.’