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Five years to order some trains, you could build a new railway quicker than that

Still in recovery mode after the collapse of the franchising process for the West Coast line, the Department for Transport probably breathed a collective sigh of relief when the press decided not to make a bigger deal of April marking the 5th anniversary of its starting procurement for the new Thameslink rolling stock.

Yes you read that correctly; this has been going on since on since April 2008 when a notice was placed in the EU Journal. In a Parliamentary answer on the 23rd April, Simon Burns re-iterated that “We expect to reach financial close shortly”, but given that as recently as January, Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin was saying that a deal with preferred bidder Siemens was expected to be signed “by the end of March” observers might be forgiven for reaching for their salt cellar.

Out on the railway, the DfT’s inability to manage procurement is causing increasing problems and its becoming clear that of hundreds of millions of pounds of newly installed overhead in the North West could end-up standing idle in a few years time due to the lack of electric trains to run on them which were expected to be freed up by the delivery of the new Thameslink trains.

In contrast, TfL obtained funding approval for the extension of its Overground network across south London in only February 2009 and the line was open by late 2012. Less than six months later, TfL has already started work on increasing capacity with orders for new rolling stock, maintenance facilities and station enhancements.

Reassuringly given the huge sums of money involved and the implications for London’s transport infrastructure, it appears that the both purchasing of the Crossrail rolling stock and the appointment of an operator are the following the simpler TfL model.  On the rolling stock side, funding will be provided initially by the public sector, leaving TfL with the much simpler task of concluding a deal with a train manufacturer to build some trains rather than having to negotiate over trains, maintenance, funding and depot construction all in one contract. The process of selecting an operator also seems likely to follow the model TfL has successfully used for both the Docklands Light Railway and London Overground; with a concessionaire being appointed and revenue risk remaining with TfL.

There are even some signs that common sense is beginning to permeate the DfT’s thinking, with the announcement of a revised program of franchising for the remainder of the rail network. Whilst it’s probably too late to undo some of the damage caused the DfT’s previous procurement decisions, there is the prospect of things being managed better in the future.

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