Railways cannot afford failure

We believed we could do it. Those words sum up the glorious failure of May’s timetable.
They evoke a welcome spirit of trying but ultimately failing. But running a railway is not like a kick-around on the local pitch. There is no place for a plucky loser. Rail companies have promised much for many years. They must deliver.
June 18 2018’s grilling by MPs of several senior railway managers prompted as many questions as it answered. It generated the claim from Network Rail System Operator Managing Director Jo Kaye that the railway thought it could deliver May’s timetable. It revealed that Northern Managing Director David Brown only realised the meltdown was coming a couple of days before it.
Yet it also revealed that Northern had tried back in January to have the timetable change postponed. So it clearly realised it couldn’t deliver the change. That doesn’t explain why it did so little to prepare its crews for the new timetables it had suggested to NR. The track operator might need to change some of Northern’s proposals to fit around others but Northern should have planned crew training around its timetable plans rather than waiting for NR to respond.
Down south, local NR route managing director, John Halsall, told MPs that there had been a tiny moment last November in which to postpone GTR’s timetable change. (May’s timetable changed the timings of every one of its 3,000 daily trains.) NR and the operators didn’t take this chance because, according to Halsall, they believed they could deliver.
Fast forward to May 4 2018 and the industry readiness board examining Thameslink gave a red risk rating to the timetable change that was to take place in just over a fortnight, according to GTR Chief Operating Officer Nick Brown. By then it was too late to change. Ditching a timetable change as large as GTR’s would have put several other operators’ timetables up in the air, depriving their passengers of improvements they’d been promised.
And, as Nick Brown noted, if the railway stopped every time it saw a red risk flag, it would never get anything done.
GTR simply ran out of time to finish its planning, Chief Executive Charles Horton told MPs. At Northern, David Brown also admitted that there hadn’t been enough time. Jo Kaye recommended never trying to compress timetable planning again.
Horton had quit a few days before his appearance before the Transport Select Committee. This shows a welcome level of personal responsibility in an industry that has shifted from individuals being responsible to having committees holding joint responsibility. That’s part of the problem. Committees can’t hold responsibility. That became clear as MPs tried to find out who decided not to postpone Northern’s change last January. At first, Brown was coy but MPs pushed and he eventually said it was train operators and Network Rail’s System Operator that decided to reject postponement and push on.
Responsibility shared is responsibility avoided. You can imagine meetings in which the person with the problem keeps quiet, not wanting to admit anything, and relieved when the committee decides to press on. Relief, the committee says it’s ok, it’s not my fault anymore.
This gave the Transport Select Committee a challenge. It could find no smoking gun. It exists to hold DfT’s ministers to account but, from what the senior railwaymen said, there was little to counter the transport secretary’s assertion in Parliament on June 4 that he wasn’t aware of the scale of the problem.
Standing that day at the government despatch box, Chris Grayling said: “The Department received advice from the Thameslink readiness board that, while there were challenges delivering the May 2018 timetable—namely, the logistics of moving fleet and staff—a three-week transition period would allow for minimal disruption. My officials were assured that the other mitigations in place were sufficient and reasonable. Indeed, as few as three weeks before the timetable was to be implemented, GTR itself assured me personally that it was ready to implement the changes. Clearly this was wrong, and that is totally unacceptable.”
Of course, this begs the question of why he and his officials didn’t know of the scale of the problem, particularly if Brown was right when he mentioned the red risk. It’s hard for Grayling to escape responsibility. His DfT owns Network Rail, it let GTR’s operation as a management contract specifically because it was going to be difficult to deliver and it’s part of Rail North that oversees Northern having specified and let the franchise. It alone has sight of all English franchise plans. DfT sits at the centre of the rail industry with its fingers in all the pies.
Having been badly stung by May’s timetables, there’s talk that Grayling wants no changes in December. I can see why. He can’t have much confidence in NR and train operators.
NR is doing its best to dampen expectations. Jo Kaye told the transport committee MPs that it was asking train operators to look again at their ambitions for December and added that she wanted the Network Code revised to limit the number of changes that one timetable could deliver.
The problem with this is that train operators have signed contracts with the DfT that promise improvements on certain dates. TransPennine Express, for example, has promised direct trains between Liverpool and Glasgow from December. If Chris Grayling wants no changes, then he will have to alter contracts.
South Western Railway has major changes coming in December, including the return of Class 442s, running Portsmouth Direct services. SWR describes December as “a huge part of the plan to provide much needed extra capacity and faster journeys.” Passenger consultation scaled back some its ambition, spokesman Jane Lee told me, adding that SWR was now waiting to hear back from Network Rail having submitted its proposals.
With the first Class 442 now fresh from overhaul, driver training has started with guard training due to start in August. And the company isn’t relying on Network Rail to deliver any infrastructure changes, she added.
Unlike Great Western Railway where NR has several December deadlines to extend electrification. NR’s March update to its enhancement plan shows December as the date for wires to Newbury, Cardiff. GWR needs these changes – its Hitachi trains perform better under wires than on diesel as my colleague Richard Clinnick discovered on a recent trip to Swindon (RAIL 855) – but spokesman Dan Panes told me the associated timetable changes were due in February 2019 rather than December 2018.
Were I transport secretary, I’d want managing directors from train operators and Network Rail to explain in public how they propose to deliver their December promises. Assurances behind closed doors won’t do. Passengers need to hear from individuals. Those MDs need to stand up and be counted. Equally, if they can’t assure passengers that all will be well, then Chris Grayling needs to be just as clear in saying that he has, or has not, agreed to improvements being delayed.
We cannot repeat the situation where DfT delayed decisions so long that it left others with insufficient time to implement those decisions. If a TOC MD stands up in July, for example, and says December can’t be done, then DfT cannot wait until October before refusing permission and forcing change through.
June 19 2018 saw Chris Grayling again at the despatch box, this time as MPs formally debated whether they had confidence in him (a majority did). He said: “We will not go through with a timetable change in December that is not deliverable. A lot of working is being done right now to see what can and cannot be done. These problems cannot and will not be allowed to happen again. We also have new leadership at Network Rail. Andrew Haines, its new chief executive, stewarded the last major timetable change on the south-western network a decade ago, which went very smoothly. Andrew will be personally responsible for ensuring that any timetable change is deliverable.”
That’s pretty clear. But I don’t detect much trust in DfT. It controls too much of today’s railway for it, and its secretary of state, to stand aside amid turmoil. It cannot stay above the fray and yet meddle within it.

This articles first appeared in RAIL 856, published on July 4 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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