NAO: DfT not getting value for money from Thameslink franchise

10 Jan 18

The Department for Transport failed to secure value for money from the country’s largest rail franchise, the National Audit Office has found.

It said in a report that the DfT had designed the franchise – which covers the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern lines in an area stretching from the south coast to East Anglia - to support the delivery of the Thameslink line upgrade programme in central London.

But between September 2014 and September 2017, passengers on the franchise experienced the worst service performance anywhere on the national rail network, parliament’s spending watchdog concluded.

Since the franchise’s July 2015 inception, around 146,000 services – equivalent to 7.7% of the total – had been cancelled or delayed by more than 30 minutes, compared to 2.8% on the rest of the network.

Around 56,000 cancellations were due to non-availability of drivers or crew.

The NAO conceded it would have been difficult for the DfT to foresee industrial action on this scale, but said it had accepted Govia Thameslink’s driver-only operation plan without fully evaluating the possible effects on passengers.

Auditors said: “The department did not seek sufficient assurance that Govia Thameslink would have enough train drivers when it took on the franchise…even if Govia Thameslink had received the number it expected, there would still have been some shortfall.”

The report found: “We cannot therefore conclude that the department has to date achieved value for money from this franchise.”

It said neither the DfT nor Network Rail properly understood the underlying condition of the network when the former set the requirements of the franchise.

Although the DfT and Govia Thameslink have agreed a settlement where the operator will fund a £13.4m spending programme for missing its targets to date, “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”.

Govia Thameslink would also receive “tens of millions of pounds” of public money because the DfT had altered the train services required in the franchise contract.

NAO head Amyas Morse said: “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.”

A DfT spokesperson said: “The NAO report confirms that the primary cause of delays and cancellations to passengers has been lack of available staff, which is a direct result of  strike action. 

“Clearly the disruption passengers have experienced is unacceptable but the NAO recognises that service has improved over the last 12 months.”

Govia Thameslink has been approached for comment.

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