'Long-suffering Thameslink passengers have experienced worst rail performance'

Taxpayers could pay'tens of millions more a year to Southern owner Govia report claims

NAO chief Amyas Morse said: "Over the last three years long-suffering passengers on the Thameslink franchise have experienced the worst performance on the rail network".

Great Northern Rail runs the "stopping" service between Peterborough and London King's Cross.

The NAO said DfT had been aware that the Thameslink Programme of major upgrades would cause disruption, and so chose a franchise model where the revenue risk fell on DfT rather than the operator.

In response, Govia Thameslink CEO Charles Horton said: "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 United Kingdom rail network, a complex project whose success is critical to the national economy".

Since operator Govia began operating the full franchise in July 2015, around 146,000 trains, or 7.7% of services, have either been cancelled or delayed by half an hour - compared with 2.8% nationally.

Of these, more than one third were caused by train crew shortages.

The NAO added that Ministers failed to check Govia would have enough drivers when it took over Southern and Thameslink - only to see a chronic shortage trigger as many as 56,000 delays in two years. It would have been hard to foresee industrial action on this scale. Since March 2017, the percentage of trains arriving within five minutes of their scheduled time has exceeded 80%, however this is still below the national average.

Govia Thameslink has been approached for comment. The report said the department expects to pay Govia Thameslink following alterations to train services and to reflect delays to the delivery of new trains. GTR received fewer drivers than the number it had expected, but even that would still have left a shortfall. The Department expected its normal processes for agreeing train services to address these concerns.

It said neither the DfT nor Network Rail properly understood the underlying condition of the network when the former set the requirements of the franchise.

While £300 million of funding has been provided to carry our work to improve the resilience of the network infrastructure, Network Rail estimates that up to £900 million of work is needed to improve reliability on Thameslink services.

As a result, the NAO believes Thameslink passengers have not received good value for money up to this point, but there is the potential for the franchises to improve services for customers.

"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 DfT has considered its options for terminating the franchise, but made a decision to continue its contract, although it did come to an agreement with the operator to l fund a £13.4m spending programme for missing its targets to date. It is unclear how the Department 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.

As well as a collapse in service, auditors have also uncovered additional costs to the public purse of potentially tens of millions of pounds a year.

The Southern, Thameslink and Great Northern is one of the largest rail franchises in the United Kingdom, carrying nearly one million passengers a day.

"It is only right 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".

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