The government was today (January 10) slammed by an independent body over its botched handling of the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern rail franchise, which has seen hundreds of thousands of delays and cancellations since the contract began in 2014.
The National Audit Office (NAO) said in a report published today that the Department of Transport (DfT) made decisions that did not take into consideration the millions of passengers who use the busiest – and worst performing – rail franchise in the country.
Nearly 8 per cent of services – 146,000 in total – were cancelled or delayed by more than 30 minutes on the franchise between 2015 and 2017, compared to an average of only 2.8 per cent on the rest of the network.
Unavailability of train drivers and crew were the cause of most cancellations.
The NAO said the DfT had failed to ensure that Govia Thameslink, the rail franchise operator, had enough train drivers and crew before the contract began.
The government body also failed to assess the risk of industrial action as Govia planned to use many more Driver Operator Only trains than what was set out in the DfT’s initial specifications – which provoked many strikes last year.
But industrial action is only part of the picture – availability of crew is also dependent on other factors such as train reliability and management of the overall network.
Nearly 40 per cent of all Govia Thameslink trains did not arrive within five minutes of their scheduled time. The watchdog highlighted in its report that the DfT had failed to listen to the concerns of Network Rail, which said that the network would not be able to handle increased services the government had contracted Govia Thameslink to take on.
While ‘value for money’ is given as the main reason behind rail privatisation that began in the 1990s, the report concluded that the government had failed in this respect with the Govia Thameslink franchise and it had let down passengers badly as well.
Taxpayers now will have to fork over millions of pounds a year as the government pays Govia to alter train services in the wake of so many cancelled and delayed trains.
‘Long suffering passengers’
“Over the last three years long-suffering passengers on the Thameslink franchise have experienced the worst performance on the rail network,” said NAO head Amyas Morse. “Some of the problems could have been avoided if the Department had taken more care to consider passengers in its design of the franchise.”
The news comes as Labour today (January 10) is set to put forward an Opposition Day motion demanding that the government tackle the failures of rail privatisation.
Shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald will highlight the recent decision by transport secretary Chris Grayling to offer a massive bailout to Virgin and Stagecoach for running the East Coast mainline, which was made public in 2009 but controversially re-privatised in 2015.
Virgin and Stagecoach were permitted to pull out of their contract early, which was set to end in 2023. In the process, it’s been claimed that the public purse will lose out on about £2bn.
Research group Transport for Quality of Life has estimated that bringing the railways back into public hands could save more than £1bn each year – enough to fund an 18 per cent cut in rail fares.
Shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald argued that today’s NAO report is further proof of the failures of privatisation.
“[Govia] passengers understand the failings of privatised rail as well as anyone,” he said.
“The NAO claim that passenger misery could have been avoided if the DfT had taken more care to consider passengers is true for the entire railway.
“Government payouts to companies failing to deliver decent services, soaring fares and poor industrial relations are hallmarks of privatised rail,” he added.
“A refusal to consider public ownership, even as a last resort, leaves our Transport Secretary dancing to the tune of private rail companies.”
Unite national officer for passenger transport Bobby Morton agreed.
“The mountain of evidence against rail privatisation is growing each and every year,” he said. “Over the last two decades under privatisation, passengers have faced exponentially skyrocketing rail fares even amid deteriorating services. Privatisation fails even on its own grounds – it does not provide value for money and instead wastes taxpayers billions of pounds.
“The only winners are the private rail companies, who can do as they please – it is an outrage that Virgin and Stagecoach were allowed to exit the East Coast mainline contract early without any consequences.
“It’s time the government admit that privatising rail is a failed experiment and follow Labour’s call to bring the railways back into public hands. If rail is really meant to be for the public good we must put passengers first.”