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Officials warn of delays to Thameslink upgrade

Senior transport officials and rail executives last week warned MPs that the £5.5bn Thameslink upgrade may not be finished by its revised target of 2018.

The Commons Public Accounts Committee quizzed Department for Transport (DfT) officials and Network Rail chief executive David Higgins about delays to the programme to increase the cross-London line’s capacity by 50%.

Committee chairman Margaret Hodge asked whether the project – originally scheduled for completion in 2015 – would be finished by its revised end date of December 2018.

DfT director of rail projects Michael Hurn told the committee: “We are confident that with the right approach we will deliver it. But there are challenges ahead.”

DfT permanent secretary Philip Rutnam added: “If we work really hard at it, there is every chance we can overcome the challenges. But it can’t be guaranteed.”

Higgins insisted the infrastructure element of the scheme would be finished by January 2018. But he added that getting the signalling system tuned to allow 24 trains per hour to run on the system by the end of that year was a bigger challenge.

Earlier this month, the National Audit Office said that the award of the private finance initiative contract to design, build, finance and maintain the trains for the upgraded line was more than three years late.

It added that this has had a knock-on effect on the rest of the project and work could be needed to change infrastructure to accommodate the new trains.

DfT permanent secretary Philip Rutnam conceded that closing the  trains contract with Siemens had taken longer than hoped – partly blaming the financial crisis.

“This transaction involves raising a significant amount of finance and the financial market conditions have at times been very difficult,” he said.

But Hodge replied: “People are not willing to lend to a company underwritten by the UK government? I find that very hard… I just don’t get that.”

Rutnam said the planning process for the train depots took longer than expected, and the complexity of the transaction was greater than anticipated.

But Turner & Townsend head of rail Anooj Oodit later told NCE the government may have made finalising the trains deal more complicated than necessary.

“It’s not the first time rolling stock has been procured,” he said.

“The government needs to look as a priority at its funding and approval processes as it does not help the image of the UK industry if things take a long time. We need to be much, much slicker.”

Committee criticises leadership change

The Public Accounts Commitments  criticised the government’s decision to move Department for Transport director of rail projects Michael Hurn to the High Speed 2 (HS2) scheme after five years of leading the Thameslink upgrade.

DfT permanent secretary Philip Rutnam defended the decision. “First, everybody deserves a fresh challenge from time to time,” he said. “Second, in terms of the demands on the department, I am keen that Michael turns his abilities to HS2.”

But Thurrock MP Jackie Doyle-Price said: “What you have just said typifies the attitude of Whitehall to project management.

“You approached this question on the basis that everyone needs a fresh challenge. Our priority is making sure the project is delivered properly on time and as good value for money.

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