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Array of Thameslink failures mean there are ‘critical tests looming’ for HS2

Despite its progress, the Thameslink Programme still faces substantial challenges that must be addressed to ensure successful delivery – and its many issues so far, including higher costs and delayed targets, have served to illustrate how slow the DfT and Network Rail were to grapple with the importance of early planning.

In a scathing new report from the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), MPs have criticised the two organisations for taking too long to start planning how the new railway would operate, and to decide to introduce services in phases “rather than a single big bang.”

Last year, for example, the DfT decided to push back the full completion of the scheme from December this year to 2019, as well as to introduce services gradually up to that point in order to minimise passenger disruption – although this does mean that some commuters will not receive the full benefits of the programme until a year after the original deadline.

MPs in the committee argued that this is linked to the fact that the DfT and Network Rail only started to focus on planning how they would bring services online from late 2016, and claimed that the department accepted it could have started planning earlier.

“Passengers and the practicalities of running services should be at the heart of public transport planning,” commented Meg Hillier, chair of the committee. “On Thameslink these considerations came too late and government faced a stark choice: delay the roll-out of services or risk additional disruption on the network. Either way, passengers lose out.”

PAC also accused the government and NR of having a poor understanding of the performance of the rail network, and said they did not monitor the impact that increasing services and failing infrastructure would have on passengers. Since the start of the programme, for example, growth in passenger numbers in the south east has been “far higher” than anticipated, and MPs reported that Network Rail did not fully understand the effect this congestion would have on Thameslink until 2016.

As a result, the infrastructure owner found out it would need another £900m in order to improve the condition of the network to a level which could reliably support the planned 24 train-per-hour ambition. The committee argued this raised concerns about NR’s understanding of the performance and condition of the railway.

“Taxpayers have also taken a hit elsewhere, with budget increases on Thameslink contributing to other rail projects being abandoned,” Hillier continued. “Government’s performance on recent rail infrastructure projects, such as its programme to electrify the Great Western route, has been poor.

“Overall progress on Thameslink compares favourably but the project is not over yet and requires significant additional public funding.

“There are critical tests looming for Network Rail and the DfT, not least the redevelopment of Euston station for HS2 – a project set to be more complex than the budget-busting work to prepare London Bridge for Thameslink.”

She argued that the government must now apply the lessons learned from Thameslink to HS2 and other future programmes and, in response to today’s report, demonstrate how it will be doing this in practice.

In response to this, a DfT spokesperson said: “The most recent independent assurance review assessed HS2’s readiness to award the major works civil contracts and concluded that the HS2 organisation is ready and fully capable of effectively delivering these key contracts.”

By June this year, PAC said the DfT should also write to the committee to clarify how it will create better working relationships between Network Rail and operators. The committee claimed that the complexity of the Thameslink Programme required a whole new approach to collaboration within the industry, and closer working relationships and incentives must be established between NR and TOCs in future – but the DfT has “not yet finalised how it will do so.”

“In November 2017, the department published ‘Connecting people: a strategic vision for rail,’ which describes how it aims to establish closer working relationships between Network Rail and private sector train operators in future, and ensure incentives are aligned across delivery bodies,” the report added.

“We are concerned that the potentially wide range of models for how this will work in practice could result in a lack of clarity about who is accountable and responsible for passenger rail services.”


Roy Chpman   23/02/2018 at 12:21

Thameslink problems - no surprise there. Given Network Rail's and the DfT's record with virtually all major projects, the problems ahead for HS2 will be huge, and budget over-run inevitable. GW Electrification was an appalling example of mismanagement and cost over-run. Therefore, we realm must ask the question - on this small island, with rail travel patterns changing, the ways of doing business also changing rapidly with developments in IT (virtual reality and quantum IT), do we really need HS2 when it could (will in reality) cost £1,000 billion?

Nickk   23/02/2018 at 16:43

Indeed, Roy. In these days of computer terminology with Mega for million, Gigs for billions, then Terabytes, is it not time that we start using a better definition than 1000 Billion, i.e. 1000Gigapounds, or One TeraPound? The Government seem to bandy around these vast sums of our money like confetti, so we might as well have a non-emotional name...

Adrian N   23/02/2018 at 17:14

Aw cmon Roy Chpman, give us a build up for £1,000billion!

FB   23/02/2018 at 17:45

Couldn't agree more Roy. Today's express trains are quite fast enough and extra capacity could be found by re-opening selected closed lines. If one needs to get to Birmingham 20 mins earlier - set out 20 mins earlier. There are far more important calls on taxpayers' money than HS2 - like the NHS, the Police, the Fire Service, Education and other Social Services. The sooner this vanity project is shelved, the better.

Andrew Gwilt   23/02/2018 at 23:17

Wouldn’t mind £100billion being used on the construction of HS2. If there was a well known Billionaire who has a knowledge of UK’s railways that would kick-start the HS2 project and it would be completed by 2026. Aswell the construction of Crossrail 2. That would be good.

James Palma   24/02/2018 at 09:24

One of the many problems with planning improved transport infrastructure is short term thinking, lack of knowledge and understanding, and how money controls these projects rather than actual public need. In addition, pressure from NIMBYs who are selfish and demand MPs listen to them. I was recently at a meeting with a highly respected transport economist who argued for the widening of the WCML over building a whole new alignment. The reason, presented by another attendee, for building a whole new railway was for the very reasons that the Thameslink program had problems. Because it is very difficult to upgrade existing 180 year old infrastructure for a further 125year life span without considerable cost and disruption to the existing network. Why do people not see this???

Realist   24/02/2018 at 10:11

James. The suggestion that MPs have listened to NIMBYs is false. NIMBYs have had minimal affect on the alignment or details of the scheme. The Hybrid Bill process only allows a few specially affected 'NIMBYs' to petition & they cannot change the alignment, which is assumed to be perfect because MPs didn't know or care what they were forced to vote for.

NS   24/02/2018 at 10:14

Has HS2 actually passed Review Point 1 which requires the Secretary of State to issue a certificate?

Anonymous   24/02/2018 at 23:21

Just get HS2 built for goodness sake. I don’t care how much it will cost. Just do it.

Rail Realist   25/02/2018 at 10:21

The PAC is wrong to criticise the gradual introduction of Thameslink services via London Bridge. With so many new features to accommodate - ETCS with ATO superimposed, Traffic Management, C-DAS - there are bound to be teething problems and to go for the full 24 trains per hour on day 1 would be foolhardy and would only invite massive press criticism if it all goes wrong. Even with extensive testing before hand, there will always be problems emerge when new technology is put into public service. They may well have a point if the slower build up needs more funding which if needed at all should not be significant. As to HS2, surely there are sufficient high speed lines in operation in Europe (including HS1) and the wider world, for this to be just a replication of what has been done before. Why in Britain do we always have to re-invent the ways projects are progressed?

Lutz   25/02/2018 at 14:25

The PAC got it most right: another case of new toys for the boys overshadowed considerations of customer service and Network Rails failures around planning & delivery. There are clearly problems within and around the HS2 organisation, its aspirations, value for money, completeness of cost estimates etc. The bill has already passed the GBP 100 bn mark taking all associated costs into account, and that is before restatement for coming increases in inflation and cost of debt.

Mark Hare   26/02/2018 at 16:43

FB - I'm interested to hear which 'closed lines' you consider suitable for re-opening in order to provide a high speed link from London to Birmingham and the North and to free up capacity on (for example) the WCML which has already had numerous upgrades, the most recent of which cost £9 Billion, caused years of disruption and is already running at or near capacity. HS2 is not about 'getting to Birmingham 20 minutes earlier' as you seem to think - it's about competing better with air travel, it's about releasing capacity on existing routes for both passenger trains and freight and taking freight traffic off the roads, and that's just for starters. Funny how many of the people who are so vehemently anti-HS2 haven't got the first idea what its purpose actually is, and can't come up with a credible, viable alternative that would address the capacity issues our current rail system is experiencing.

Paul   26/02/2018 at 23:46

Anyone arguing that HS2 money should be spent on the NHS, police or schools simply doesn't understand economics. This is investment money that would not be available - doesn't exist - to spend on operational costs like firefighters, nurses or teachers, because that sort of expenditure doesn't generate a financial return. That is why those things must be funded from general taxation, whereas HS2 can be funded by public or private finance; i.e. borrowing against future fares revenue. Making an effort to understand this will help unlock your understanding of how the world works :-)

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