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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. 

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.

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From pain point to painless: parking’s future is smart

Technological change will make fines a thing of the past.

If Hercules had faced a thirteenth labour, it surely would have been parking in a crowded town centre on a busy Saturday afternoon. For many, parking conjures up visions of endless searching, pricey car parks and frantic dashes to feed the pay-and-display machine to avoid a penalty.

Those days are coming to an end. A wave of new technology is ripping through the parking industry, changing the status quo and profoundly altering the parking journey and changing consumer behaviours. What does this mean for drivers, towns, cities and parking operators?

According to Nigel Williams, managing director of UK parking consultancy Parking Matters, “we can see how technological innovation, combined with societal and demographic change, is transforming the way we work, spend our leisure time, travel, and shop. Those same forces will also transform how we own and use cars, and consequently the way we park. The good news is that the days of parking fines and penalties are numbered.” The UK, European and North American markets are awash with parking apps. 

These apps have proven popular because they help drivers overcome one of the most time-consuming, environmentally damaging and frustrating aspects of parking – finding an available space within a specified area at a reasonable price. Their arrival constituted the first phase of a revolution for parking consumers and signalled a shift in focus for the parking industry. These new apps form part of what the British Parking Association calls the “Positive Parking Agenda”. They give customers information, choices and greater control over their parking, reflecting the new reality that shoppers and visitors increasingly need to be wooed.

Digital visibility – ensuring that apps and their users are aware of what’s on offer – will be key to the success of towns and cities. With big data at their fingertips, customers know what the options are and will choose the best available. Going forward, if you’re not on the map you simply won’t exist and if no convenient parking is available, then cars and apps will recommend alternative destinations. This fundamental change will essentially alter the way that towns, cities and parking operators approach consumers. Proactive strategies for creating online visibility will become an absolute must. Those who have taken their first steps are already ahead of the game.  

Tech start-ups aren’t the only ones actively working on converting consumer pain points into golden opportunities. The automotive industry is also getting into the game as part of its drive towards a future of autonomous vehicles. With their next generation of cars, parkers will be able to entirely delegate the hassle of parking. “Our cars will be able to locate an available space near the driver’s destination, guide them there, make sure the space meets comfort and budget requirements, park themselves and even pay the parking fee,”says  Ulrich Vornefeld, head of parking at BMW Group.

Although the media sometimes makes it sound as though autonomous cars are just around the corner, it will be many years before the majority of cars in urban areas are driving themselves. This is because of the complex legal, regulatory and technical issues involved.  However, automated valet parking (AVP) is a much simpler prospect.

With AVP motorists have a lot to look forward to. They will get out of their cars at a drop-off point, their vehicles will drive away and park themselves in the nearby car park and then be waiting at the pick-up point when the drivers are ready to leave. We can expect to see this service being introduced within the next five years.

The technological advances needed to make this automation possible, and the resulting change in consumer expectations, signal a seismic shift that will constitute a challenge for both public and private parking operators. Local authority parking services will have to adapt to increasing expectations of an efficient, user-friendly service operating within the context of intense public scrutiny.

They will need to evolve from enforcers to enablers and to fully embrace the important role that parking plays in creating and maintaining attractive, safe and healthy communities. A change of emphasis from issuing penalty notices to providing real-time information to apps, connected vehicles and drivers on where to park and how to pay easily is essential for the regeneration of the high street.

To achieve this metamorphosis, at a time of immense pressure to reduce costs, local authorities will have to rely heavily on technology. Parking management, both on and off-street, will be totally dependent on technology and become largely a question of data and payment systems. Forward-looking local authorities are already implementing smart parking to improve service for consumers and reduce operating costs.

They are also introducing a Positive Parking Agenda that focuses on parking management rather than enforcement.  These actions will ensure that valuable kerb space is shared fairly, in ways that improve the environment and help maintain urban centres as vibrant cultural, retail and leisure destinations.

Nigel Williams concludes that “the parking industry is changing, radically so. If we get things right, parking will soon be a completely painless experience for the customer.” Hercules and the British public certainly hope he’s right.

Keith Williams is technical director at Parking Matters.