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Full Thameslink service delayed a year, says watchdog

thameslink train

Network Rail and the Department for Transport (DfT) will face a “tough challenge” in being ready to deliver the full Thameslink services in London, as issues such as infrastructure readiness hit timelines, a National Audit Office (NAO) report has concluded.

The report, Update on the Thameslink Programme, said although the scheme had a “realistic prospect” of delivering value for money, the remaining risks on the programme would need to be managed carefully.

In particular, the report said the wider rail network cannot yet reliably support the Thameslink programme’s new services.

The full roll out of the service is also to be delayed by up to a year, said the report. Instead of running the full 24 trains per hour from December 2018, there will be a phased increase with the full service running from December 2019. This is to allow Network Rail and operators to “learn and implement” lessons from each service change.

London and the South East is expected to see a 46% growth in passenger numbers by 2033 and the Thameslink programme was set up to build and provide the additional infrastructure to cope with the increased demand. The ultimate aim of the programme is to be able to run 24 trains per hour each way through central London at peak times.

However the report raised concerns about how the scheme currently runs on existing track and whether these issues can be rectified in time for the delayed roll out.

Between July 2015 and March 2017, the NAO said 13% of cancellations and delays of more than 30 minutes had been due to failure of track and other Network Rail assets such as the signalling systems. In 2016, Network Rail estimated an investment of £900M was needed to achieve the resilience needed to run the new services on the Thameslink network reliably.

Thameslink services before and after 3to2

Thameslink services before and after 3to2

However, the report noted that only £300M had been prioritised to improve vulnerable parts of the network. The remaining £600M is being considered by Network Rail for inclusion in the next control period from 2019 to 2024.

Several recommendations were made by the NAO. These include the setting up of a readiness criteria for each timetable change and contingency plans if they aren’t met, and a communications strategy to explain the deferral of services to passengers.

To future projects, it said commercial arrangements that incentivised major programme contractors to provide “clear visibility” of emerging cost risks, should be put in place and assessments of the ability of the existing infrastructure to support planned enhancements should be carried out.

“The Thameslink programme has a realistic prospect of delivering value for money, with significant benefits for passengers in terms of increased capacity, and more trains but a number of key risks and challenges still remain to be overcome,” said NAO head Amyas Morse.

“The Department’s recent decision to introduce new services more gradually than originally planned means that passengers will get the full expected benefits one year later than planned, but it is a sensible step to protect value for money and passengers from further possible disruption due to large numbers of new services being launched at the same time.”

A Network Rail spokesperson responded: “The Thameslink Programme is transforming north-south travel through London to provide more frequent, more reliable journeys to new destinations for passengers and upgraded stations including the landmark, entirely redeveloped London Bridge.

“On 2 January 2018, the final section of the brand new, modern concourse – which is larger than the pitch at Wembley – will open to passengers alongside entirely rebuilt platforms one to five. Thousands of new, more frequent services to more destinations than ever before will introduced throughout 2018, to deliver better journeys for the millions of passengers who travel on this route each year.”

The DfT has been contacted for a response.

Thameslink

The new updated Thaneslink service will run more frequent, longer trains from Bedford, Peterborough and Cambridge, through central London to Littlehampton and Brighton with more connections in both the south east and south west.

Upgrades to the existing line and new infrastructure has had to be built to cope with the additional services. This £7bn programme has an been split into several sections.

The first £5.5bn part was split into two phases of infrastructure works, carried out by Network Rail. The first was to redevelop both Blackfriars and Farringdon stations and was delivered on time and on budget in 2011 at a cost of £2.4bn. The second phase began in 2013 and included the redevelopment of London Bridge station, new track and signalling technology in central London. The budget for this increased by 18% from £2.7M to is £3.1bn.

Also included is a fleet of 115 new trains totalling £1.7bn and two new maintenance depots at a cost of £0.3bn.

The budget for the second phase of works increased by 18.0% from £2.6bn to £3.1bn and was largely associated with the works at London Bridge.

The report said measures had now been put in place by Network Rail to manage the programme’s cost control following the increases in spend. It said reporting by main contractor, Costain, and Network Rail’s contract management, had not immediately brought this to light.

The works at London Bridge station are still underway, but 10 new platforms are now complete and open to the public.

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