12 January 2018
The National Audit Office (NAO) this week published its report into the management of the UK’s largest rail franchise, criticising the Department for Transport’s (DfT) strategy as contributing to a trend of worsening performance.
Passengers on the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern rail franchise have experienced the worst service nationally for the last three years, the report found.
The NAO noted that 7.7% of services have been cancelled or delayed by over 30 minutes across the franchise since Govia Thameslink was contracted to run it in July 2015, compared with the national average of 2.8%.
Industrial action was spurred by the government’s decision to push through driver-only operated (DOO) trains at the same time as increasing capacity and the introduction of new targets.
Despite knowing plans for DOO services had led to strikes elsewhere, the NAO found that the government failed to “fully evaluate the possible effects on passengers of different scenarios of industrial action before awarding the contract, nor did it ask Govia Thameslink to do so.”
Indeed, RMT stated that “at no point have the company tried to negotiate seriously with RMT officials throughout the current dispute, despite the union reaching lasting agreements in Scotland and Wales on the same issue.”
The DfT, run by Chris Grayling, was also criticised for not seeking “sufficient assurance that Govia Thameslink would have enough train drivers when it took on the franchise”; demanding “a specific level of increased services despite concerns from Network Rail and Govia Thameslink that the network could not support the proposed timetables reliably”; and for not having “a good understanding of the underlying condition of the existing network at the point when the Department set the requirements of the franchise”.
Head of the NAO, Amyas Morse, commented: “Over the last three years, long-suffering passengers on the Thameslink franchise have experienced the worst performance on the rail network. Some of the problems could have been avoided if the Department had taken more care to consider passengers in its design of the franchise.”
Despite its poor performance, TfD has not only chosen to maintain the Govia Thameslink contract, but will also pay the company extra fees of up to tens of millions of pounds a year following changes to services and delays in the delivery of new trains.
“The report makes it clear that tens of millions of pounds of public money, cash which could have guaranteed a guard on the trains and delivered decent, accessible rail services, was instead wasted propping up the private owners while they presided over the worst rail franchise in the country,” RMT General Secretary Mick Cash said.
“This is a scandal of epic proportions with Chris Grayling and the Tories centre stage and worst still they are about to embark on an even bigger taxpayer bail-out on the privatised East Coast Mainline.”
The report noted that Govia Thameslink has agreed to implement a £13.4 million spending programme as a remedy for missing its targets to date, but that “it is unclear how the Department will incentivise Govia Thameslink to deliver good services for passengers in the future, having removed its ability to use financial performance penalties up to September 2018.”
Grayling attempted to deflect blame, telling Radio 4’s Today Programme the problems had been caused by “militant trade unions”, adding that he “makes no apology” for his department’s planning of infrastructure upgrades and changes that affect rail workers.
But Shadow Transport Secretary Andy McDonald said Grayling is “in complete denial about his shortcomings and those of his department”.
“It’s a poor do when he seeks to trash the NAO, and if he wants to look again at the Gibb report, that doesn’t cover him in glory either. There is a consistent theme that there was a complete lack of preparedness when it came to the franchise,” he told the Guardian.
Mick Whelan, General Secretary of Aslef, added: “Passengers have suffered, totally unnecessarily, and taxpayers have had to pick up the bill. The company got it totally wrong – with the connivance of the DfT – now we want heads to roll.”