Reigate MP Crispin Blunt says he will continue to press for a better deal for local rail users, after a National Audit Office (NAO) report found that Thameslink was the worst performing franchise in the country over a three-year period.
Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) took on the franchise, which includes Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern routes, in September 2014: the NAO studied its operation from then until August 2017.
The NAO concluded that although it would have been difficult to foresee the scale of industrial disputes – a major cause of disruption – the DfT had made decisions about the franchise which, taken together, had an adverse affect on passengers.
The report also says that the franchise has not yet provided value for money for the DfT, although services did improve during 2017.
Commenting on publication of the report last week, Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, 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.”
GTR’s chairman has responded to the findings, apologising for the disruption, saying problems had been greater than expected, and that passengers will increasingly see benefits from the Thameslink programme.
Reigate MP’s reaction
Crispin Blunt said of the NAO report:
“It will not come as a surprise to local rail users who have endured appalling levels of service disruption over recent years that the Govia Thameslink Railway operation has provided the worst rail service in the country.
The report identifies the industrial action as a cause, as well as failures to fully understand the underlying condition and problems of the existing network when the franchise was awarded, and a failure to consider the number of drivers available to deliver the timetable.
There are clearly lessons to be learnt for the design of the franchise in the future, including staffing issues and better coordination with Network Rail on infrastructure improvement works.”
Unusually for rail franchises, the DfT receives the fare revenues, paying GTR a fee. This was set up so that the DfT would bear the risk of any falls in revenue due to disruption from the Thameslink upgrade work.
Crispin Blunt commented that, despite the disruption:
“The Department for Transport has still generated the expected £3.6 billion from this franchise, which after paying £2.8 billion to GTR, leaves a net revenue of £760 million for the Government.
I will continue to urge Transport and Treasury Ministers to use some of that revenue to provide compensation for passengers, including through lower and fairer fares.”
New minister, new meeting
The MP said he was looking forward to meeting the new post-reshuffle rail minister, adding that he was grateful to the previous minister, Paul Maynard, for his efforts to address local demands for fairer fares.
Mr Blunt said:
“I will be urging the new rail minister and officials to build on the work started to address the ‘Redhill hump’ which has higher fares than comparable stations.
Following the announcement of a fares freeze which I was led to believe would apply to all regulated fares, such as day returns, I am as disappointed as local rail users are to discover that the freeze has only been applied [to] some ‘any Permitted’ London Terminals season tickets.
With the withdrawal of ‘Southern-only’ tickets, commuters are being asked to pay more for the privilege of using the inferior Thameslink metro trains.
I am seeking clarification from the DfT on this, bearing in mind that fares from Redhill/Reigate and other stations pay disproportionately higher fares across ticket types.
Fares and performance issues on this franchise must be at the top of the new minister’s in-tray.”
GTR has previously said the fares freeze is to do with the withdrawal of “Southern Only” tickets – see our previous article.
On the NAO report, Charles Horton, GTR’s chief executive, responded:
“The Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern (TSGN) franchise is making good progress in delivering a major upgrade programme to improve reliability and boost capacity on the most congested part of the UK rail network, a complex project whose success is critical to the national economy.
As part of this drive to modernise, we are pioneering improvements in trains and technology, and have updated practices for train drivers and crew that other operators are only now adopting.
Passengers will increasingly see the benefits of this modernisation project in terms of reliability, punctuality and new journey options, delivered in conjunction with the Government’s Thameslink Programme.
We are glad that the National Audit Office has recognised these passenger benefits and that they forecast Thameslink has a realistic chance of delivering value for money.
TSGN is the UK’s largest franchise – carrying almost a million passengers a day – and the report identifies numerous root causes for the challenges it has faced since its formation in 2014.
These difficulties have sometimes been greater than expected and we regret the disruption caused to our passengers.
It is only right that a franchise of TSGN’s unprecedented scale and ambition receives scrutiny, and I am more confident than ever that its trailblazing achievements will be felt by rail travellers for generations to come.”
National Audit Office report (includes a summary)