Rail companies have eyes bigger than their bellies

It’s a massive public trust issue. That was Peter Wilkinson talking about the railway’s decision to ditch its long-standing commitment to publish timetables and allow passengers to book trains 12 weeks before travelling.
Rail companies would move to a six-week deadline which he stressed must be a one-off change and not a permanent switch. Wilkinson is DfT’s hard-talking passenger services director and his comments came at February 14’s meeting of the Rail Delivery Group’s National Task Force.
Fast forward a couple of months and I’m looking for train times to Gatwick Airport. National Rail’s journey planner delivers its suggested trains but flashes a warning: “Owing to the major timetable change from 20 May, Southern are still unable to confirm that services after this date will operate as shown in this Journey Planner.”
Never mind six weeks, this warning came just 17 days before that new timetable started. Southern told me a few days later that it had finalised its timetable three to four weeks before the change and that the warning had now been removed.
May’s timetable change is the biggest in recent years. It has seen nearly half of all schedules in the working timetable changed. Every one of GTR’s 3,200 daily Thameslink, Great Northern, Southern and Gatwick Express services will change, for example, the operator says.
With knock-on changes included, May’s timetable changes over 100,000 schedules. Compare that with the 14,500 changes in May 2017 and 18,000 changes in December 2017. In case you’re wondering what a schedule is, Network Rail explained it to me: “A train schedule reflects the calling pattern of a train service from origin through to destination with all intermediate station calls as well as passing times at key operational locations.”
May has clearly swamped the railway. Network Rail System Operator Capacity Planning Director Chris Rowley explained the problem to January’s NTF meeting. Key, he said, was that assumptions around infrastructure and service specifications had changed late in the day. This meant the railway’s modelling work was out of date.
Northern’s Rob Warnes added that much work had been done on timetables for North West England but it had been sent back to the drawing board because of delays to Bolton electrification and the resulting impact on rolling stock cascades.
Rowley also explained that Thameslink’s service specification was expected to make performance worse but that the sheer scale of the changes made it very difficult to produce meaningful performance forecasts.
Thameslink’s timetable planners faced the challenge of linking services on several busy main lines – Midland, Brighton and East Coast. Poor running is already a feature and the new link under London increases the chance of one line infecting another.
The complexity means that Thameslink will progressively introduce changes on three of its routes: Peterborough-Horsham, Luton-Rainham and Luton-Orpington. It explained that the gradual changes are the result of having to introduce new stock, some of which is stored off its network. “To get them to what will be their home depots, we must also move some of the existing trains off our network and switch over to the new rolling stock. The majority of this will be done overnight for start of service on Sunday 20 May and Monday 21 May, but it is not possible to change over the entire fleet in one weekend without risking disruption to services,” it said.
This means, for example, that the 0424 from Peterborough will run as a Great Northern to King’s Cross on Monday May 21 but switches to be Thameslink’s 0424 Peterborough-Horsham from Tuesday May 22.
The timetable challenge and hopefully temporary ditching of T-12 are symptoms of a wider problem. Rail companies are trying to do too much. Their eyes are bigger than their bellies.
At the heart of this is the competition to win franchises. The Department for Transport has been ratcheting up the emphasis it places on improvement plans. Taken in isolation, who could complain about improving passengers’ lot? Taken together, they overwhelm the railway’s capacity to deliver them.
Factories at home and abroad are churning out new trains. TransPennine Express, Northern, Greater Anglia, ScotRail, Caledonian Sleeper, London Overground, GTR, Merseyrail, c2c, West Midlands Railway, Great Western Railway, Virgin Trains East Coast and South Western Railway all have new trains coming. All will need depots prepared and drivers trained – which takes them away from daily duties and needs courses planned and timetable paths booked. All will take time and organisation. At the same time, current fleets will switch between operators.
A delay to one fleet, as ScotRail has seen with its Class 385s from Hitachi, creates pressure when a linked cascade plan sees existing fleets reduce. Passengers experience short-formed trains in the interim and rail companies must explain why the benefits they’ve been promising for years are now late.
Over at Network Rail, there’s a massive programme of improvements as well as the challenge of maintaining and renewing existing tracks, signalling and structures as train operators run more services. To which we must now add Digital Railway delivery. The early May bank holiday showed the difficulty of balancing NR’s needs with train operator’s, and in turn, passengers’.
Buses replaced trains between Gatwick Airport and Three Bridges. Reports followed over the weekend of queues of 4,000 passengers waiting up to two hours to board buses. It beggars belief that GTR did not expect plenty of passengers for Brighton on what was a gloriously hot bank holiday weekend. Clearly, NR plans such work well in advance of weather forecasts, but GTR should have better planned its bus replacements.
That’s a very short-term example of the pressure railway managers are under. The wider point is that the DfT’s otherwise welcome drive to make the railway better for passengers is outstripping the supply of competent managers who can deliver all these changes.
Many of these changes concentrate on May and December timetable changes. From its central position, DfT can see all these plans as they are developed. It can see that Bidder X has just won Franchise Y on the back of major plans that take effect in December 2020, for example. It knows that Franchise Z is already planning major changes for the same date. Does it consider the risks that result from simultaneous major change at two or more franchises? Or does it simply accept assurances from each franchise’s managing director that all will be well at that franchise?
DfT might already have the answer in its hands. On the back of the railway’s failure to deliver many of the upgrades it wanted over 2014-2019, DfT is now to assess each upgrade on its own merits. This is chiefly because it’s realised it can’t fund all its ambitions now that NR is no longer allowed to simply borrow cash to fund cost overruns. DfT and NR must now carefully cost and plan any upgrades. It must treat project managers in the same way as cash. If it can’t identify sufficient managers to deliver a job, then it should not attempt it.
DfT could usefully ease its pressure on train operator staff numbers. This encourages operators to turn to agency and interim staff to deliver projects. With these projects so important, is it wise for operators to effectively contract out their delivery? For having staff on the books, rather than on-call from an agency, provides better assurance that they’ll be there to deliver. If those staff can’t be found and employed then that’s a clear sign projects cannot be resourced.
NR has learnt the limits of particular skills. In the same way that it can only call on a finite number of heavy lift rail cranes, it only has so many skilled signal testers or overhead line equipment staff. This has forced it to plan work accordingly. It’s now the time to extend this concept to a higher level so that the government, train operators, Network Rail and the supply chain realistically plan upgrades and consistently deliver them to time and budget.
It’s time the railway wakes up. It cannot keep promising and failing. Stop gorging on grand plans. Start concentrating on delivery.

This article first appeared in RAIL 853, published on May 23 2018.

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Philip Haigh

Freelance railway writer, former deputy editor at RAIL magazine - news, views and analysis of today's railway.

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