Problems on Britain’s worst performing rail franchise could have been partly avoided if the Government had better considered the needs of passengers, a watchdog has found.
The National Audit Office (NAO) said the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern network – which has been plagued by delays and cancellations – failed to deliver value for money.
It concluded that the way the Department for Transport had awarded the franchise was partly to blame, and that it made decisions which “negatively impacted on passengers”.
Industrial action over plans for the driver only operation (DOO) of trains was a major contributor to disruption on the routes, though the network also suffered from a shortage of train crews.
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.”
The NAO noted that the “complex and ambitious” franchise, which is the largest in the country, includes four major train services operating on a congested part of the railway with unreliable infrastructure.
Image: Southern Rail is part of the franchise
It found that officials failed to grasp the potential impact on passengers of combining an increase in capacity, targets to improve services and the DOO plan which resulted in strikes.
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.
After missing targets, Govia agreed with the Government that it would spend £13.4m on improvements.
But the NAO report said the DfT also expects to pay Govia for the additional costs, potentially amounting to tens of millions of pounds a year, of altering the train services required in the franchise contract.
Govia chief executive Charles Horton said the difficulties faced by the franchise have “sometimes been greater than expected and we regret the disruption caused to our passengers”.
Shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald said: “The National Audit Office’s claim that passenger misery could have been avoided if the DfT had taken more care to consider passengers is true for the entire railway.”
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The RMT, which has been embroiled in a dispute with Southern over the role of guards for 20 months, claimed the report proves the Government has given Govia “a free hand to slash staff and run services into the ground”.
A DfT spokesman said: “The NAO report confirms that the primary cause of delays and cancellations to passengers has been lack of available staff, which is a direct result of strike action.”