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BBT March/April 2019 cover
March/April 2019

MPs warn of ‘difficult year’ ahead for rail passengers

Rail passengers caught in delays at Kings Cross Station in London

2019 looks set to be ‘another difficult year’ for both passengers and the rail industry, with further timetable changes and a plethora of maintenance and improvement works planned, according to MPs.

A report released today by the Public Accounts Committee claims the Department for Transport (DfT) “did not ensure, as it should have done, that those responsible for the railway are clear about their roles and that they work together effectively”, which contributed to “major disruption and misery” for passengers amid the chaos that resulted from a huge overhaul of timetables last May.

The committee says the change led to one in ten trains being cancelled by Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) and Northern, causing “significant financial and emotional costs for passengers”.

Committee chair Meg Hillier said: “The Department for Transport must set out clear governance and accountability structures for the rail system, and move swiftly to provide other important information.

“For example, poor performance on the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise has been well-documented. Yet still we don’t know what level of profit the operator, GTR, can expect to earn – nor what tangible benefits passengers can expect to see from the £15 million GTR must spend on improvements. The department must provide clarity on this, and similarly on when passengers will see the improvements they were promised from the failed East Coast franchise.”

The committee says the DfT “still has a way to go to achieve the joint working needed between Network Rail” and operators to ensure improvement projects are properly planned and scheduled to minimise disruption for passengers.

Delays to major infrastructure projects such as Crossrail are also under fire. MPs are concerned that the DfT and rail industry have ‘failed to learn lessons’, which “means that its strategic management of the railways is not evolving quickly enough to be able to procure and execute complicated projects” on time and on budget.

Crossrail has faced multiple delays, with no definitive date set for the opening of the Elizabeth Line. The project is estimated by some to be costing £30 million per week after receiving a £1.4 million government bailout, with delays pushing it far past its original £14.8 billion budget.

Meanwhile, the MPs raised concerns about disabled access to the railways, saying “it is not good enough that the department does not know if passengers with disabilities are getting the support they need”. It has asked the DfT for plans on how it will ensure these passengers are looked after by operators by the time Parliament breaks up for the summer.

Furthermore, the DfT is still not “adequately” protecting taxpayers’ money, particularly on the GTR franchises, because improvements hadn’t been delivered and passengers have experienced the worst delays since 2014.

The committee has set out a series of demands for the DfT and rail industry, including recommendations for setting out governance and accountability guidelines as part of the Williams Review. It expects clarification on what improvements GTR has been ordered to make following last year’s chaos within three months, as well as details of when direct services to towns and cities such as Huddersfield, Sunderland and Middlesbrough will be delivered as part of upgrades to the East Coast Mainline now operated by the government under the London North Eastern Railway (LNER) franchise.

Hillier continued: “2018 was a year from hell for many rail users and unless the government gets a grip, there is every chance that passengers will suffer in 2019 as well. The ‘root and branch’ review will report later in 2019 and must then be implemented, so passengers have some time to wait for any improvements arising from its recommendations.”

Read the full Public Accounts Committee report here

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