National Audit Office chief says £8bn Govia Thameslink Railway offers “the worst performance on the network”

The biggest rail franchise in Britain may be redesigned after an independent report said it was failing to offset industrial action and keep to its timetable. 

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Britain’s largest rail franchise, Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), which includes the strike-hit Southern service, has failed to deliver value for money, a report from the National Audit Office (NAO)  has concluded.

The government’s Department for Transport (DfT) awarded the operating contract, worth £8bn over seven years, to Govia Thameslink after it scored the highest out of five bidders in 2014.

GTR was designed in order to support the delivery of the major Thameslink upgrade programme and to improve passenger experience across routes operating in London and other parts of the south east of England. But since it came into operation three summers ago, around 146,000 (7.7 per cent) of planned services have either been delayed for more than 30 minutes or cancelled entirely, compared to just 2.8 per cent on the rest of the rail network.

The NAO’s report recognised Southern’s long-standing disputes with station and crew staff as the main reason for the franchise’s failings, but cited the overall size of the merger between Southern, Thameslink and Great Northern services as a contributing factor in itself.  

The 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 network.” He added: “Some of the problems could have been avoided if the Department [for Transport] had taken more care to consider passengers in its design of the franchise.”

Based on data collated by Network Rail and Govia Thameslink about cancelled services, around 56,000 cancellations (38 per cent of the total) were related to the availability of drivers and other train staff. The NAO also identified the reliability of some train fleets, Network Rail’s management of the rail network, and faults of the track and other infrastructure assets, such as signalling, as reasons behind delays.

According to the NAO, the DfT did not suitably prepare for the possible effects on passengers in the instances of strikes before awarding the contract to Govia Thameslink, in response to its “driver-only” operation, nor did it ask Govia Thameslink to do so itself. Subsequently, Govia Thameslink received fewer drivers than it expected from the previous operator of the Thameslink and Great Northern routes, and driver shortages have persisted on Great Northern services. Even if Govia Thameslink had received the number it expected, the NAO’s report pointed out, there would still have been some shortfall to deal with.

The NAO report found that while the DfT has enforced the terms of its contract with Govia Thameslink, and that performance is now improving, passengers continue to experience disruption. The DfT considered its options for the future of the franchise including terminating the contract, but decided that enforcing the contract was the most appropriate option.

The DfT and Govia Thameslink agreed a settlement where the operator will fund a £13.4m spending initiative for missing its targets to date. It is unclear how the DfT 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.

Negotiations on a second remedial plan, and interim performance measures, are ongoing. Indeed, the DfT admitted last year that it was “actively looking at the shape and size of the next Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern (TSGN) franchise on expiry of the existing contract in 2021.”

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.