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TSGN franchise a ‘multi-faceted shambles’ causing ‘untold misery’

The Department for Transport’s (DfT) management of two of its most important franchises has been branded as “completely inadequate” in a report by the public accounts (PAC) committee.

Passengers on the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise have faced “an appalling level” of delays and cancellations since 2014 when the franchise started, with less than two thirds of trains arriving on time, the committee said.

It has warned that the “inadequate” management could be indicative of wider weaknesses in its contract management capability.

The committee has called this a “totally unacceptable state of affairs”, which it attributed to a “catalogue of failures” by DfT, Network Rail and Govia Thameslink.

It has accused the department of ambivalence towards the risk of industrial action, saying that it neglected to engage constructively with rail unions.

According to the committee, DfT was “too ambitious” about what could be achieved, overlooking the poor condition of the infrastructure of the rail network and failing to see the “perfect storm” of an ambitious upgrade plan combined with plans to increase driver controlled operation of trains.

However, the committee has acknowledged that there has been recent improvement, with Network Rail and Govia Thameslink working together more effectively, although it remains sceptical that this will address the “serious and deep-rooted problems” identified.

There is also concern that DfT has failed to learn from the previous failures of the East Coast franchise and that the department could terminate its contract with Virgin Trains East Coast and, yet still, give the operator the opportunity to run the franchise again in the future.

PAC committee chair, Meg Hillier, 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.”

She said that the government appears to contract out the service with inadequate consideration given to the best interests of passengers.

“This imbalance cannot continue. The franchising model is broken and passengers are paying the price,” she warned.

Hillier said that the government must conduct a thorough review before any further franchises are awarded if taxpayers are to have faith in its ability to deliver an effective passenger rail network.

“At its heart should be new measures to embed the protection of passengers’ interests at a contractual level – and to ensure taxpayers’ interests are properly protected should franchisee performance break down,” she concluded.

The Department for Transport has called the report “imbalanced”, claiming that it “fails to grasp the complexity of the situation.”

A DfT spokesperson said: “Our franchising model already puts passengers and taxpayers first and has doubled the number of passengers using trains since privatisation reversed decades of decline and underinvestment under British Rail.”

Mark Carne, chief executive of Network Rail, said: “The PAC and I are in agreement that priorities and incentives of Network Rail and franchise operators need to be aligned.”

A spokesperson for Virgin claimed that the franchise has “met or exceeded” all of its contractual commitments and never lost sight of its customers.

“We believe we are best placed to continue the transformation,” they said.

Top image: Gareth Fuller PA Wire


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