The UK’s rail franchising system has been described as “completely inadequate” and “broken” in a report by the Public Accounts Committee into the East Coast and the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchises.
In the report, MPs said they were concerned with the Department for Transport’s (DfT) management of the contracts and suggested it could be “indicative of wider weaknesses” in its ability to deliver franchising contracts.
The report was highly critical of the DfT, Network Rail and Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) over their handling of industrial relations with rail unions regarding driver-only operation (DOO) and the management of infrastructure upgrades. It said passengers had “suffered an appalling level of delays and cancellations” since the start of GTR’s franchise in 2014.
While the report felt improvements had been made and that Network Rail and GTR were now working together more effectively, the committee said it remained sceptical that they will “address the serious and deep-rooted problems we have identified”.
A spokesperson from GTR said the operator regretted the impact that industrial action has had on services but believed the situation was improving.
“We have been making good progress to improve reliability. Southern Railway is a third more reliable compared with 2016 when the effect of industrial action was at its worst, while on Thameslink passenger satisfaction has hit a record high.
“Next month we will transform services with a new timetable creating space for 40,000 more passengers at peak times along with new routes across a wide region. We are more confident than ever that these benefits will be felt by rail travellers for generations to come.”
The report also directed criticism towards the East Coast franchise. It said the DfT had failed to learn lessons from the previous failure of the franchise under National Express and had again “allowed the operator to promise more than it could deliver”.
The current franchise agreement with Virgin and Stagecoach is due to end three years earlier than planned and will be replaced by a new East Coast Partnership which will be delivered in collaboration with Network Rail.
The committee said it was also concerned about transport secretary Chris Grayling’s comments that neither Virgin nor Stagecoach will be blocked from bidding on future franchise competitions.
A spokesperson for Virgin Trains East Coast said: “We have met or exceeded all of our contractual commitments on the East Coast and have never lost sight of our focus on customers, delivering industry leading passenger satisfaction, and progressing our £140m investment programme. We believe we are best placed to continue the transformation already underway on East Coast, introduce the new Azuma trains and provide a smooth transition to the new East Coast Partnership.
“We welcome the Committee’s recommendations around infrastructure planning and risk sharing which will help deliver a better railway and build on the significant benefits that franchising has delivered.”
Committee chair Meg Hillier MP 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.
“In both cases the Government appears to have seen its task as simply to contract out the service, with wholly inadequate consideration given to passengers’ best interests and behaviour.
“This imbalance cannot continue. The franchising model is broken and passengers are paying the price.”
In a statement issued to various media outlets, the DfT described the report has imbalanced, adding that it believes its franchise system puts passengers first and has resulted in a huge growth in passenger numbers since privatisation.
The PAC report urged the DfT to review its current system before any new franchises are awarded and introduce new measures at contract level to protect the interests of passengers and taxpayers.
Responding to the report, Paul Plummer, chief executive of the Rail Delivery Group (RDG), said: “Franchising has brought significant benefits to passengers and the taxpayer, with services up by a quarter and running costs going from the red to the black, freeing up taxpayer’s money. We agree, though, that the current system should be reviewed and improved and the report makes a number of sensible recommendations.
“As part of our plan for a changing and improving railway, we’ve already begun sharing our initial thinking with government on how the contracting of services can evolve to deliver more. It would be wrong for the industry to sit in a room by itself and decide what these reforms should be so we are engaging with groups representing those who rely on the railway every day. Working together, we can deliver a better railway for the long-term for passengers, communities, the economy and people who work in rail.”