Passengers face ‘untold misery’ as train delays become ‘shambles’

Passengers face ‘untold misery’ as train delays and strikes become a ‘multi-faceted shambles’, claim MPs

  • Accounts Committee finds fewer than two thirds of trains on time in south-east 
  • Department of Transport branded ‘too ambitious’ in what it tried to achieve 
  • MPs claimed the body had failed to ‘engage constructively’ with the unions 

A catalogue of failures by almost everyone involved in organising rail services has caused ‘untold misery’ for passengers, say MPs.

The Public Accounts Committee described the operation of the giant Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise as a ‘multi-faceted shambles’.

It said passengers on Britain’s biggest franchise suffered an ‘appalling level of delays and cancellations’ since Govia Thameslink Railway started running it in 2014.

At one point, it said fewer than two-thirds of trains were on time as services on Southern were hit by a mix of strike action and incessant engineering works in the South East.

The Public Accounts Committee described the operation of the giant Thameslink (service pictured at London Victoria), Southern and Great Northern franchise as a ‘multi-faceted shambles’

It said this was a ‘totally unacceptable state of affairs which caused misery for passengers’ and was the result of a ‘catalogue of errors’.

The report accused the Department for Transport of being ‘too ambitious’ about what could be achieved, overlooking the poor condition of the rail infrastructure and of failing to ‘engage constructively’ with the unions.

It said it ‘failed to see, or chose not to see, the perfect storm of an ambitious upgrade’ coupled with Govia’s plans to increase the number of driver-only operated trains on Southern.

This triggered 46 days of strikes on Southern by the militant Rail, Maritime & Transport Union and later by drivers’ union Aslef. But Tory MP Chris Philp said it was ‘staggering’ that the committee had ‘glossed over’ the role of the RMT, which has been protesting for two years.

Describing the franchise model as ‘broken’, the committee also pointed out that the East Coast franchise had collapsed three times since 2006.

It said the DfT had ‘failed to learn the lessons from previous failures of the franchise’ – after awarding it to another operator that ‘promised more than it could deliver’.

PAC chairman Meg Hillier said: ‘The operation of the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise has been a multi-faceted shambles causing untold misery for passengers. Meanwhile, the East Coast franchise has failed for a third time because of wildly inaccurate passenger growth forecasts.’

The Government awarded what is now the East Coast franchise to Stagecoach and Virgin in 2015. Their failure to generate as much from ticket sales as they had forecast means they cannot pay the £3.3billion they had promised the Government between 2015 and 2023. Transport Secretary Chris Grayling told the Commons in February that Virgin Trains East Coast would be able to continue in its current form for only a ‘very small number of months’.

PAC chairman Meg Hillier said: ‘The operation of the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise has been a multi-faceted shambles

The decision to allow Stagecoach and Virgin to end the franchise early has been described as a ‘bail-out’ – as it lets them off paying £2billion of the sum.

Despite the debacle, the Government is weighing up whether to allow Virgin Trains East Coast to continue running the line on a ‘not-for-profit’ basis.

The alternative is renationalising it until the franchise is renewed in 2023. The report said it is ‘concerned’ that Virgin Trains East Coast is even being given the chance to run the line again. A DFT spokesman said: ‘The delay and disruption Southern passengers experienced due to strike action in 2016 was unacceptable, but services have improved dramatically and a brand new programme will begin next month.’

 

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