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MPs attack DfT over Thameslink

MPs are casting doubt on the £3.55 billion Thameslink rail project being delivered on time.

In a highly-critical report, the MPs questioned the way the Department for Transport (DfT) had gone about the north-south cross-London project which is due for completion in 2018.

The report, from the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, said the department's award of a £1.6 billion private finance contract for new trains for Thameslink was delayed by over three years and that passengers had, overall, had to wait for around 30 years for the scheme to go ahead.

It added: "The department made changes to its plans for the franchise very late in the day. Prior to 2013 the department's approach to letting the franchise to operate the new service was not joined up with the rest of the Thameslink programme, highlighting weaknesses in the department's programme management capability.

"We remain concerned about the department's skills and capacity to complete Thameslink by 2018, alongside its ambitious wider portfolio of programmes and projects."

The MPs added that DfT " suffers from a shortage of strong project management skills" and that the core Thameslink team of just five seemed "too small for a programme of this scale, compared with teams for other complex Government projects".

The committee also expressed concern that a senior member of the Thameslink team was moving to the HS2 high-speed line project.

The report added that the apparent need to move this person " illustrates the scarcity of the project management and commercial skills that the d epartment has available".

The MPs said the DfT was confident that the trains could still be delivered on time but was "unable to cite any examples of a manufacturer delivering trains early and we are not confident that the trains will be delivered on schedule".

The committee went on: "The department told us that the delays are partly down to underestimating the complexity of the procurement and to difficulties in raising finance in the current market. Both of these issues highlight the importance of understanding properly the risks of the chosen delivery model from the start.

"In this context, it is alarming that the department only compared the PFI option against another private sector option and did not construct a public sector comparator to understand better the relative costs of choosing the PFI route."

The report also expressed concern about the management-style franchise arrangement for Thameslink, with MPs saying: "We are not convinced that the department has thought through all the risks associated with letting a new style of franchise for the first time".

The MPs said: The excessive time taken to get the Thameslink project off the ground means passengers have to wait far too long - over 30 years - for this upgrade. "

Public Accounts Committee chairman Margaret Hodge said: "It was clear as long ago as 1989 that the Thameslink route needed to be upgraded but passengers will not start to see the benefits until the 2020s.

"The first proposals to modernise the route and increase capacity were developed by a succession of rail industry sponsors but nothing much happened until the DfT became sponsor in 2005.

"The department has done well to deliver the first phase of the infrastructure project under budget and on time."

She went on: "The other two aspects of the programme are going less well.

"The procurement of new trains through a £1.6 billion PFI deal has taken over three years longer than expected. And the timetable and approach for letting the new franchise have been revised.

"The planned completion date has been put back to 2018. But meeting the timetable for delivering the new trains will be very demanding and risky. We are also sceptical about using PFI to fund this project."

"Another source of worry is the small size of the department's core Thameslink team."

Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT union, said: "This report is a complete vindication of everything that RMT has said about the chaotic Thameslink fleet replacement programme which took train-making in Britain to the brink of collapse.

"Never again must there be a repeat of this expensive fiasco which was cooked up by the same Government department that brought us the rail franchising shambles.

"The battle to save train-building in the nation that gave the railways to the world carries on, starting with the Crossrail (cross-London scheme) fleet."

A Department for Transport spokesman said: " As the committee acknowledges, the Thameslink programme will deliver much-needed additional seats for passengers by December 2018.

"Difficulties in the financial markets, caused in part by uncertainty regarding the euro, alongside the complexity of the deal and our drive to secure maximum value for the taxpayer, did lead to a delay in concluding the rolling stock contract but we remain confident that the trains will be delivered at the right time.

"Construction of the depots and manufacture of the new trains is on schedule."

He went on: "Taking on board the recommendations of the Brown Review (into franchising), the new Thameslink Southern Great Northern franchise has been designed as a management contract with the delivery of the Thameslink programme at its core.

"This new approach will help to ensure the smooth delivery of the programme.

"A major recruitment programme is currently under way to enable the DfT to support all aspects of its rail activities to ensure we have the right people employed in the right roles.

"The responsible directors for franchising and major projects are continuing to work jointly to ensure that the right resources are available to enable delivery of the significant benefits of the Thameslink Programme."

The committee's report follows the independent reports which were also critical of the DfT over the West Coast franchise bidding fiasco which set back the whole nationwide refranchising programme.

This latest report comes just two days before a vote in the Commons on the £50 billion HS2 scheme - another major rail project which puts the DfT under the spotlight.

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