From the Phil Marsh Collection

P.A.C criticizes Thameslink - but have they ignored history?

Published: 15 November 2013

Thameslink on track – or not? looks at the project

The Rt Hon Margaret Hodge MP, Chair of the of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has said that “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”. While this statement is correct if taken at face value, it is disingenuous at best and at worst, a downright incorrect and misleading statement. Why?

History lesson

The Thameslink project reopened the Snow Hill tunnels in London in 1988 following the Central London Rail Study. When Holborn Viaduct closed, through passenger trains could operate between Bedford, Brighton and Wimbledon for the first time in decades. The line had remained open for freight services until the 1960s but passenger services reached Farringdon and Moorgate from the north and Blackfriars from the south.

It was the gap in between Farringdon and Blackfriars that was reopened under the sponsorship of Network Southeast and within a year, it was realised that the existing capacity would be soon outgrown and the couple of single line sections south of Blackfriars would need to be doubled to allow this. A new viaduct across Borough Market was also needed to segregate trains between London Bridge, Blackfriars and Charing Cross as they had top cross each other’s tracks to gain the correct route.

Privatisation – a barrier to progress?

The PAC correctly says “that the first proposals to modernize the route and increase capacity were developed by a succession of rail industry sponsors but nothing much happened until the Department for Transport became sponsor in 2005”.

This is totally incorrect as British Rail’s attempts to increase capacity on Thameslink routes was stymied by rail privatisation. Investment funds were denied in the run up to the 1992 election and then by the Government from that election because they wanted to make the rail industry accounts look favourable for the great sell-off.

The initial Thameslink franchise, along with the others, was an exercise finding out how privatisation worked so far as the finances were concerned and the Railways Act, 20 years ago, was designed to maintain the rail network as it was in 1994. Today’s expansion was never envisaged and has been driven by a boom in rail usage bringing line reopenings, new trains and more services.

Post privatisation, there were literally hundreds of statutory consultees to negotiate with when the T2000 project was being planned plus Objectors, many of whom were frivolous but equally, many were serious as their homes and businesses would be very seriously affected such as those in Borough Market.

The PAC says that The Department for Treansport (DfT) “has done well to deliver the first phase of the infrastructure project under budget and on time”.

This ignores the original ‘Thameslink 2000’ (T2000) project which was costed at about £580million in 1998 by Railtrack, sponsors of the scheme. It was signed on April 24, 1996 by Railtrack, The Secretary of State for Transport and the Franchising Director.

Today’s scheme is around ten times this price at today’s prices and includes wholesale upgrades of stations such as London Bridge and resignaling, so the original scheme cannot really be compared to the current one. There were two other factors that delayed the £580m project.

In a hole

The collapse of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link consortium, London & Continental, which happened in 1998 when they failed to raise funds for the construction of HS1 stopped the T2000 literally in its tracks as the two projects were inexorably joined at St Pancras where a huge underground ‘box’ was built under the station . This deal was established in law in the 1996 Channel Tunnel Rail Link Act.

This ‘box’ now contains the new Thameslink station but in 1998, progress was stopped while the HS1 rescue deal was thrashed out and signed late that year.

The demise of Railtrack three years later further held up the project while their finances were sorted out and the scheme novated to Network Rail. In between, Railtrack took the T2000 project to a Public Inquiry as required by the Transport and Works Act of 1992. This is where the Inspector examined the Statement of Case, a 200 page document which outlined what was to happen where and when and how.

This took a year and a further Inquiry was held before Planning Consent was obtained and Railtrack then ran into trouble after the Hatfield crash.

So it is hugely disingenuous for the PAC to say that the project is late without qualifying their statement. The one thing they are correct about is the procurement of the new fleet of trains to operate on the network when completed. These trains will cost £1.6 billion and has taken several years to finalise which is down to the DfT arrangements and negotiations. Because of this delay, partly due to the cost of finance, but also maybe due to a change of Government three years ago, will the new trains be delivered in time?

The PAC says it is sceptical about using a Private Finance Initiative scheme to fund this project but is this a project concern? Network Rail is building the new railway across London but it is always up to train operators to lease trains and up to Rolling Stock companies to buy them and lease to operators.

Size and procurement

In this case, the DfT has led the procurement and selected Siemens to build the new train fleet. They also worry about the size of the DfT’s core Thameslink team – just five people but surely as Network Rail is overseeing the project’s engineering works, does this matter? They have delivered very well so far. The PAC questions whether the DfT has enough people with strong project management and commercial skills necessary to take forward its very ambitious portfolio of big projects.

The DfT Thameslink project has three interrelated projects, to improve rail infrastructure, to buy new trains, and to let the new franchise to operate the new services.

What the PAC said in June 2013

Under six months ago, The Rt Hon Margaret Hodge MP, Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts said: "Despite the DfT’s chequered history in this area, it was encouraging to see that the first phase of the [Thameslink] infrastructure project to alter both Blackfriars and Farringdon stations came in on time and under budget. The Department now has to build the rest of the infrastructure, buy new trains and let the operating franchise. The case for Thameslink is clear: it is consistently among the most crowded routes in London.

Perhaps the PAC members should have a look at their previous musings and consult those that are aware of the history of the project…… They only have to ask!

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