Driver shortages have caused widespread service cancellations at Govia Thameslink Railway, placing the Department for Transport under scrutiny

 

Commuters make their way past a Thameslink train on the platform at Blackfriars Station, London, in the morning rush hour

 

The quality of the Department for Transport’s franchise management, aspects of its franchising process and the rail industry’s driver recruitment policies are coming under scrutiny following further deterioration in the performance of the new Govia Thameslink Railway franchise.

In the first 12 weeks of the franchise, which started in September, GTR cancelled 3-4% of services due primarily to driver shortages, compared to cancellation targets of less than 1.5%. In December, the situation was exacerbated by the need to withdraw drivers to complete major training programmes for alternative routes that will be operated during Thameslink Programme works at London Bridge. In the four weeks to January 3, cancellations rose to 9% on the Thameslink route and 6% on the Great Northern route.

A GTR spokesman said the company’s drivers had needed to undergo 900 days of training in the three months before the new routes came into effect in early January. A large number of drivers had previously agreed to work overtime and rest days, compensating for some of the driver shortages, but declined to do so in the run up to Christmas and over the holiday period.

Passenger watchdogs told Passenger Transport that customers had a right to expect that the franchise handover to GTR would have improved or at least maintained the poorly-regarded service previously provided by First Capital Connect. Failure to do so was creating serious reputational issues for the railway.

“I never thought I would hear a passenger say to me bring back First Capital Connect. It’s absolutely crucial that the industry and DfT find out why this is happening,” Passenger Focus chief executive Anthony Smith said.

On the Thameslink route fewer than 80% of trains arrived within five minutes of schedule from the start of the franchise to the end of 2014.

In presentations to local authorities and passenger groups, GTR chief operating officer Dyan Crowther has indicated that unexpectedly low driver numbers inherited from FCC had been causing significant problems.

Govia had anticipated the company would have 631 drivers, but had found only 611 were employed. The franchise needs 666 drivers for a full establishment. Driver sickness had also been higher than anticipated, with an absence rate of 13% compared to the 8% level assumed.

London Travelwatch has written to the DfT seeking clarification on whether the information on driver numbers supplied to companies bidding for the franchise was accurate. Questions are also being raised over whether the DfT could have acted to ensure more drivers would be available through stronger franchise management and provisions in two six-month franchise extensions awarded to FCC before the new franchise began.

It is understood that two years ago, FCC had drawn up plans to increase driver numbers to more than 650 to reduce dependence on overtime and rest day working. Industry sources considered that the plan must have made insufficient allowances for drivers leaving the business or been abandoned in favour of relying on drivers to work rest days and overtime.

They added that the major training programme required in the early months of the GTR franchise had been understood for several years. They suggested that FCC’s franchise extensions should have included arrangements to raise driver numbers closer to the establishment in order to cater for the spike in resources created by the new route training and enable a more reliable service to be operated subsequently.

“It shouldn’t have been an issue. DfT should have mandated FCC carry out strategic recruitment,” Passenger Transport was told.

Industry sources also pointed out that the DfT’s new franchising process had created a larger gap between franchise bids being submitted and contracts starting, and suggested this should put greater responsibility on the department to ensure incumbent operators hand franchises over with the expected resources. In the case of the new GTR franchise the gap was nine months.

Since beginning the franchise, Govia has begun a major recruitment programme to fill the driver shortages. It has 62 drivers in training and is seeking to recruit a further 89, but it takes over a year for each new recruit to finish training.

The GTR spokesman said the large number of drivers being recruited would significantly reduce reliance on rest day working and ensure sufficient numbers of drivers are available
to operate services when training on the new Class 700 trains begins later this year. The new trains are due to enter service in spring 2016.

 

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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