Network Rail’s Christmas problems reveal deeper faults

It’s been a bad month for Network Rail. High profile failures over Christmas at King’s Cross and Paddington, followed by problems at London Bridge, have put plenty of pressure on Mark Carne’s team.

London Bridge is in the middle of a massive improvement programme to deliver a better Thameslink service from 2018. With platforms closed for rebuilding, NR and the station’s train operators had already decided to cut services. (Thameslink trains diverted away and Southeastern services to Charing Cross no longer calling.) This proved inadequate against the crowds using the station in the first working week of January.

NR Route Managing Director Dave Ward told the BBC: “We need to step back and see exactly how we have got into this situation – what has caused this. We believed, and the execution of the works kind of proved it, that our plans were very tight and were very thorough. We’d been modelling this a number of times.”

He added: “We thought we would be presenting a new station and a new method of operation after several months of misery leading up to it and that hasn’t happened and I’m deeply regretful for it.”

As he spoke, NR was preparing to publish a report explaining what had gone wrong at Paddington and King’s Cross, were passengers were disrupted on December 27 2014. It duly arrived on January 12.

This report explained that at King’s Cross a plan to renew points at Holloway quickly went wrong when untried equipment proved faulty. Problems then snowballed with the result that drivers needed to move trains of ballast and other materials ran out of hours. No replacements could be found.

The report also revealed that a plan agreed between NR and train operators was not implemented by local staff. The plan should have seen long-distance trains arrive in Platform 4 to drop southbound passengers before shunting to Platform 5 to pick up northbound passengers. A local plan decided by station staff and signallers at King’s Cross box used only Platform 4, removing the shunt. However, this meant that passengers struggled to leave incoming trains because the platform was already full with those waiting to board.

NR suggests there was a “short term breakdown in communications in how to handle longer distance trains”. It doesn’t make clear whether the NR-TOC plan to use two platforms was not communicated to station staff and signallers or whether it was communicated and then changed locally.

Details are sketchy of the problems at Paddington with NR’s report failing to get to the bottom of why signal testing expected to take two hours actually took ten. Unlike at King’s Cross (where there was warning of 14 hours that the line would not open on time), there was no warning at Paddington.

Signal testing around Old Oak Common (OOC) was reported as finished at 0330 with First Great Western’s first long-distance train timetabled to leave Paddington at 0730. Testing was in the hands of NR’s contractor SSL (a joint venture of Alstom and Balfour Beatty). SSL had a significant overrun at Poole last May when resignalling the line to Wool. A report into this found that there had been no senior SSL management on site, that communications with NR had been poor and that NR’s and SSL’s project offices were geographically remote.

Remedial action was taken for OOC’s work but NR now admits that it was unlikely the Poole investigation found the root-causes of that overrun. Another review of Paddington beckons with NR’s report saying: “The work management processes of SSL that led to the incorrect conclusion that the signalling testing of the main lines was complete at 0330 will be thoroughly reviewed by SSL and Network Rail staff.”

Checks of paperwork supporting the testing showed there was more to do. This was both physical work that needed to be redone or rechecked and inconsistencies in the paperwork that needed to be resolved. What is absent from the report is any explanation of why work had to be redone and why there were inconsistencies.

It’s clear that NR’s planning and management needs to improve. Both project passed NR’s risk tests as being 95% likely to be completed on time. There’s no mention in the report whether those conducting these tests knew, for example, that the King’s Cross contractor was using untried kit.

There’s now likely to be pressure to allow projects to have more time to complete work. This could mean more weekend closures or more weekday blockades of lines. This is an option that TOCs and most passengers are unlikely to welcome but there should be a clear debate.

There must also be a debate about the level of work being done. With two major overruns in the last year, NR could be very tempted to drop SSL as a contractor. However, with only a handful of signalling contractors to choose from, and a massive amount of work looming, that option seems untenable.

So it is with experienced project managers. NR has a laudable apprentice programme and puts considerable effort into management training. Despite this, it’s seen key staff leave for other companies, such as HS2. Are we now seeing the effects of the long-talked-about skills shortage?

A shorter version of this article appeared in RAIL 766.

Goodnight European Sleepers

Passengers hurrying for an evening train on Friday December 12 at Paris Gare de l’Est were greeted with a small demonstration and speeches.

In the rain at the other end of the station’s Platform 5, a couple of photographers were turning their lenses towards SNCF electric locomotive 26162.

For this train was the final Paris-Munich sleeper service, axed from that night by operator Deutsche Bahn.

PIC1 Philip Haigh SNCF 26162 Paris-Munich sleeper Paris East 121214 IMG_0806

In pouring Parisian rain, SNCF 26162 prepares to leave with the 2005 sleeper service on December 12 2014. This was the service’s final departure. PHILIP HAIGH.

The train’s arrival in Bavaria’s capital the following morning went unremarked as bleary eyed passengers trudged towards the concourse in search of onward connections.

Aboard the train itself, there had been no wake – there was no bar or restaurant car – although I suspect a few couchette compartments were well stocked with beer and wine.

Sleeper services are shrinking all over Europe. Only in Britain do they appear to be thriving. And that’s in stark contrast to the situation a decade ago when Europe’s services were thriving and Britain’s in decline.

Since then, there’s been a successful campaign to save the Cornish Sleeper. Indeed, it can now be hard to book a berth on this train. Scotland’s sleeper trains are set to be improved with new stock and considerable investment.

For long-distance travellers, sleeper services make good use of time. Board in one city and wake up the next morning in another. The decline of the European network pushes people towards short-haul flights from Paris to Berlin, for example, if their time is valuable.

Despite DB withdrawing such City Night Line trains, the company’s website was still promoting the sleeper concept a couple of weeks later: “With City Night Line, you get a good night’s sleep and wake up fresh at your destination the next morning. When you travel by City Night Line, you can be sure of a comfortable and pleasant journey whether you are planning a short break, visiting friends or family, or taking a business trip.”

Why then have the trains been axed? Those following their fate closely suggests that it’s a combination of European Union pressure to put railways on a commercial and competitive footing. Writing in November, EU blogger Jon Worth said: “The story about why this is happening is a complicated one, but at its core is the change in the nature of Europe’s railways – from being public services with a public ethos, to competitive, profit making businesses. The EU itself is behind this change, forcing railways to separate their networks from their operations to try to promote competition. This change has worked to a certain extent for rail freight, but when it comes to passengers it means long distance services that run only a couple of times a day, and are borderline profitable, become too complicated and cumbersome to operate and are cut from the timetables. Track access charges – the cost to a rail company to run a service on a neighbouring country’s tracks – are often cited as the reason.”

It seems no-one is really interested in making international sleeper trains work and there’s no organisation that can effectively lobby for them.

Keith Barrow in an IRJ blog commented: “In this shifting landscape, overnight services seem to have been largely forgotten. It seems ironic that while the European Commission ploughs billions of euros into developing cross-border rail infrastructure, international links are being quietly curtailed because there is no common vision for their continued operation. This flies in the face of EU policy on modal shift and carbon reduction, effectively forcing rail passengers onto short-haul flights.”

The European Passengers’ Federation (no, I’d not heard of it either) briefly mentioned CNL services in its December bulletin saying: “An independent fact-finding study should be commissioned on the economics of international night trains and their social and economic benefits, as the first step towards improving them.”

Too little and too late. Now the trains have gone, I can’t see them returning. Europe is the poorer for its lost international night trains.

This article first appeared in RAIL 765.