The changing face of Britain’s railway

1923. 1948. 1996. Three years in which Britain’s railway changed greatly. 1923 saw the creation of four companies covering mainland Great Britain. The quartet owned tracks and ran trains. They were vertically integrated just as their constituent companies were.
They made their own investment decisions, designing and building their own rolling stock, as well as upgrading signalling and track layouts to create more capacity when it was needed and could be afforded.
There was some competition between them. Travellers for Exeter could choose between the Southern Railway from Waterloo to Exeter Central or the Great Western Railway from Paddington to Exeter St Davids. That choice still exists today. Other towns and cities no longer have that advantage. Nottingham’s direct trains from London come from St Pancras on the Midland Railway route that became part of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway in 1923. Back then, passengers could also reach Nottingham using trains from Marylebone, which called at Victoria station on their way north. The Great Central Railway built this route and it became part of the London and North Eastern Railway in 1923.
When Labour’s Clem Attlee swept to power in 1945 he came with a firm conviction that the state should own fundamental industries in order to reorganise a country. The ‘Big Four’ of 1923 remained private companies through World War Two but were under close government control. When peace came and Attlee entered Downing Street, nationalising the GWR, SR, LNER and LMS in 1948 was one of his easier tasks. Now British Railways, the network was divided into regions along roughly the same geographic lines as the previous private companies, with the exception of Scotland which was given its own region.
The network and trains BR took over were tired. Britain was as good as bankrupt. There was no money to invest in rail and it took years to recover from its wartime exertions. Eventually, a programme of building modern locomotives started and new coaches, the BR Mk 1, began to be built. 1955’s Modernisation Plan brought great hope and several white elephants as BR equipped itself for yesterday’s traffic rather than tomorrow’s.
Rationalisation came courtesy of Chairman Richard Beeching and his infamous programme of line closures in the 1960s but he also created what became Freightliner, merry-go-round coal deliveries and the InterCity network. BR’s next major change came in the 1980s when it switched from a regional to a traffic structure of different sectors – railfreight was one, InterCity another with Provincial taking over other services outside London. Within London and South East England, NSE took over with plenty of red paint on lamp posts.
Despite never being flush with cash, BR developed and delivered to service in 1976 the High Speed Train (HST). Attempts to repeat the feat with its APT electric tilting train failed but HST was to become InterCity’s workhorse across many of its roots. It would have liked to switch more but BR could never persuade government to authorise funds to build enough.
Just as with Attlee’s nationalisation of BR in 1948, the privatisation of tracks and trains in 1996 was built around political beliefs, this time of John Major’s Conservative government that competition was the antidote to poor service.
Since 1996, Britain’s tracks and infrastructure have reverted to national ownership and are now under Department for Transport control following Railtrack’s financial collapse. Train operators have come and gone as have fashions for long franchises to allow private sector investment and short franchises to allow tighter government control. There’s been a continual tension between the fear of train operators making too much money and the fear that they go bust and walk away.
Privatisation has brought investment. The locomotive-hauled trains running on what had been InterCity’s Cross-Country routes were finally replaced with new stock, completing a task BR had started but never had the money to complete. Money came to modernise the West Coast Main Line which was ageing and unable to cope with demands for more trains to run at higher speeds. Much more money was needed than first thought, testament to decades of having only just enough spent to keep it running.
Much of the increase in government funding has gone towards correcting years of underinvestment. Some has gone towards increasing capacity, occasionally reversing cuts BR had to make in more constrained times. Not everything is rosy, electrification has cost far more than anticipated and that’s led to howls of anguish as other programmes have been cut.
Yet in general terms, the rail network has seen money spent on it that BR managers could only dream of. It’s been helped by moves towards five-year funding settlements that give more continuity than BR’s annual budgets.
More change is coming. NR is moving towards devolving power to its regions, known as routes. It’s creating supervisory boards with representatives from train operators as well as the local NR chief and independently chaired. In some ways, these boards reflect those that BR once had for its regions. They might benefit from one or two more independent members.
If NR’s routes are to have more power, that leaves the question of how the railway retains the benefits of being a network. Trains cross route boundaries and such train operators need assurance that decisions on things such as capacity will not be taken purely to benefit trains running within route boundaries rather than those operating over wider journeys. Who can best provide the balance between local and national? Who can advise on improvement schemes that provide more benefit outside a route’s boundaries than within it?
This is a topic that Mark Phillips considered in a lecture in mid-January at the University of Birmingham. He’s the chief executive of RSSB, the guardian of UK railway standards and fount of railway safety knowledge. However, he’s not always been a ‘safety bloke’. In Railtrack’s early days, Chief Executive John Edmonds called him in to sort train planning. As Phillips told his Birmingham audience, he decided to combine train planning with engineering planning, bring in new train planning software and institute an annual timetable conference.
These were the actions of a ‘system operator’ although it wasn’t called that at the time and has only recently come into the railway’s vocabulary. The system operator is the body that ensures the railway remains joined up and keeps an eye on the long-term. As NR devolves responsibility to routes, so it created a system operator, currently headed by Jo Kaye.
Phillips suggested there were three models for a system operator. The first is one run by the state that puts the state’s objectives before those of the market. The second is a customer-driven operator which is independent of the state and network owners and can therefore respond to what customers want. The third option would be a system operator as part of a track owner but that is regulated – this is today’s model.
But he argued that today’s model cannot continue. NR is not the only infrastructure owner. There’s High Speed 1 and Heathrow Airport as well Crossrail, HS2 and East-West Rail coming. “As new infrastructure managers emerge, and devolution begins to demand differing approaches to suit local requirements, the need to demonstrate fair and equitable outcomes across all the routes and operating companies will also increase,” he said.
He called for an independent systems authority and argued that is could be a step towards bringing marginal pricing for track access to better match cost of using the network with revenues. He admitted this would be complex and was something Railtrack had tried and failed to do. He said: “It seems unfair that operators cream off peak ticket prices but do not redirect any of this income towards funding infrastructure upgrades.”
I’m not convinced that’s true. Operators direct much of their income towards government which then substantially funds NR’s infrastructure upgrades. The link is indirect rather than direct.
Technology changes bring a need for a whole-system approach, he argued, particularly as access to data across different organisations becomes more important. This data could drive local or national decisions but it’s vital that it’s visible so that decisions are explicable.
Lastly, as government moves towards regional alliances between a lead operator and the local NR route, there could be changes that erode national network benefits.
Just as RSSB was created when Railtrack’s Safety and Standards Directorate was carved from its parent, so a system authority could be created from what is today NR’s system operator organisation. The reasons are much the same. There was unease that Railtrack was setting the standards across the industry because those standards might favour it rather than others. As the railway moves towards having several infrastructure managers, it is not right that one of them makes decisions that could adversely affect others. Better this is done by an independent body that is accountable to all of them.

This article first appeared in RAIL 846, published on February 14 2018.


Plenty of risks for Network Rail from 2019

Four pages of RAIL 847 contain  a summary of Network Rail’s strategic plan, which it published on February 13. That will save you wading through all 1,857 pages of it.
Those pages are spread across 31 documents. Helpfully, there’s a 32-page summary from NR’s headquarters with a foreword by Chief Executive Mark Carne. Unhelpfully, it doesn’t summarise what’s in each of the nine route plans and 12 functional plans. This makes it difficult to see, for example, how much the company plans to spend on operating, maintaining, renewing and enhancing the railway beyond the headline figure of £47 billion over the five years from 2019. There are small graphs showing how spending varies over the five years of Control Period 6 from April 2019 but no figures. In any event, there’s no split between operations, maintenance, support and renewals – they’re lumped together.
Carne concludes his foreword saying: “This is a radical plan, an ambitious plan. It is not without challenge and risk. But with great people, great teams, the right quality of leadership, the right incentives and the determination to see it through, it can deliver the better railway that a better Britain needs.”
I hope the plan does deliver that better railway. Whether it’s radical or ambitious is at first less clear. Towards the back of the summary, there’s a chart that makes clear where its risks lie. Chief among them is ‘train performance delivery’, followed by ‘efficient delivery’ and then a trio of ‘sufficient engineering access’, ‘renewals delivery’ and ‘supply chain capacity’. The summary reckons the plan is deliverable but then says the routes only have a 50% chance of success.
NR is asking much from its suppliers. They’ve had a rough ride in the current five-year period, seeing track renewals abruptly switched off as money ran short. Now renewals are to play a much increased role. From wrenching the valve shut, NR now plans to open the taps. Meanwhile its strategic summary says: “We must avoid the huge variation that we have previously had for some activities so that we can better support the supply chain in delivering the country’s major programme of infrastructure investment.”
No argument there but there’s nothing in the summary that even hints at how NR plans to put this welcome message into practice. It talks about new regional framework arrangements. Previous frameworks have been akin to zero hours employment contracts. They have had a bank of work to be done and an expectation but no guarantee that it will be done. That should change to give contractors more certainty.
The current control period should have seen a major change in the railway with widespread electrification laying the foundation for even more wiring that would have left most major inter-city routes running electric trains over the next few years. Having sat on the fence for many years, the Department for Transport leapt from it with alacrity in 2012 and foolishly demanded a programme that was beyond Network Rail. Had it been in less of a rush, Whitehall would now be overseeing a successful programme, just as Transport Scotland generally is. As it turned out, budgets and timescales fell into tatters and the department has now returned to its previous state of indifference towards electric trains. The railway looks to have missed its chance to electrify, even though it could claim to have been set up to fail thanks to the DfT. As a word ‘electrification’ is mentioned only once in NR’s summary and that’s in the context of third party investment.
Instead, signalling takes centre stage. NR reckons: “Over 60 per cent of ageing signalling equipment must be renewed over the next 15 years.” It’s not clear whether that’s 60% of signalling or 60% of NR’s old signalling (or how old it must be to qualify) but there’s certainly much to do. It contends that this renewal “can only be delivered affordably by cheaper solutions, which the digital railway will facilitate. CP6 will see the end of major analogue resignalling. Digital signalling is the future that this plan ushers in.”
There’s been plenty of background work by NR’s Digital Railway team under David Waboso so this switch should not surprise anyone working for signalling companies.
Nevertheless, the graph of signalling renewals by year for this and the next control period shows sharp peaks and troughs. Next year is the peak in this control period but the year that follows is set to have the lowest level of signalling renewals of the ten-year period the graph covers. Digital kicks in from the middle of the next Control Period and NR expects even more work in the two five-year periods that follow from 2024. You can decide whether the peaks and troughs of this graph match NR’s aim of avoiding huge variations.
Whether digital signalling in the form of ETCS does start appearing in CP6 remains to be seen. It’s what NR is aiming at but it doesn’t yet have the funding to do it. A table of constraints, risks and opportunities within Digital Railway’s plan lists eight risks and seven opportunities. The main risks centre on funding and supplier capability. Funding depends on government and needs NR to construct sound business cases with realistic costs and demonstrable benefits. The current transport secretary has already shown that he’s not willing to spend large sums for negligible passenger benefits. If ETCS cannot demonstrate notable improvements for its costs over conventional signalling then he – or his successor – will ask why NR is not pursuing standard signalling. NR expects cheaper costs and it specifically assumes that Feltham’s resignalling with ETCS will cost the same as conventional kit.
It remains to be seen whether signalling suppliers have the capacity to cope with NR’s planned increase in work. As RAIL 845 noted, London Underground also has a major resignalling project underway with its ‘4LM’ programme covering its Metropolitan, Hammersmith and City, Circle and District Lines. It’s due to be complete in 2023 so that both NR’s and LU’s demands will coincide.
There’s another part to Digital Railway and that’s traffic management (TM). NR had hoped to make more of this in the current Control Period. It now sits as an ambition for the next one. Recent increases in services have led to poorer performance as delays from incidents ricochet around the network. Now train operators want to run even more. Without better management, NR will struggle to contain performance, let alone improve it. And it’s set an ambition to cut the number of delayed trains by 15%. That might sound ambitious but with the recent decline it only takes the network back to the punctuality seen in 2014.
NR can control two areas that affect punctuality – asset reliability and incident management. TM can help with the latter and renewals can contribute to the former, with newer kit generally performing better than old. Here signalling is a major culprit. Figures for 2017/18 suggest that of 25,000 delay incidents, 15,000 were caused by signalling. Hence the emphasis on signalling renewals.
Rolling out ETCS and TM will be radical. But it’s not guaranteed from my reading of NR’s plans. That makes it ambitious. So Mark Carne’s foreword’s conclusion is right. His company’s summary would have been stronger if it had spelt out this challenge more clearly. It’s almost as if Network Rail has deliberately downplayed the difficulties it faces. I fear this ambiguity sets up NR for a signalling repeat of CP5’s electrification criticisms.

This article first appeared in RAIL 847, published on February 28 2018.


How long before new train bubble bursts?

Derby. Doncaster. Darlington. All classic locomotive works, their names recognisable to generations of railwaymen and generations of enthusiasts.
Lest this all become about alliteration, I’ll add Ashford, Eastleigh, Crewe, Swindon and St Rollox.
Of all these names, only Derby still builds trains. Some of the others remain involved in rail, mainly by refurbishing stock.
Railway companies built and ran these works for their own needs. Private companies supplemented their output and build for export – Vulcan Foundry’s order book reads like an ode to empire. But markets home and abroad fell away and there were more factories than work. Closures were inevitable, each accompanied by great sadness as the final shift filed through the gates.
For towns such as Swindon, the railway works was the town and the town was the works. Closure hit hard.
Privatisation two decades ago brought a three-year hiatus in orders for new stock, putting more pressure on the factories that remained. Derby survived and would soon be producing large numbers of Electrostar EMUs and Turbostar DMUs as new train operators looked to replace ageing stock. The private works at Washwood Heath in Birmingham made the leap from public to private orders and would assemble Virgin’s fleet of Class 390 tilting Pendolino EMUs under Alstom’s ownership.
Despite this and other orders, Alstom closed Washwood Heath in 2005. There were plenty of orders but Alstom landed too few. Siemens did very well, taking a major order to replace Mk 1 stock running from Waterloo. However, it built these trains in Germany and this led to criticism when it won a deal to build 1,140 vehicles for Thameslink in place of Bombardier in Derby.
Bombardier had built West Coast’s and CrossCounty’s Voyager fleets in Belgium but market consolidation later saw it take over Derby from Adtranz. Having lost to Siemens on Thameslink, Bombardier and Derby won Crossrail’s 630-vehicle order.
Meanwhile, Hitachi won government’s order for 866 Intercity Express Programme vehicles. The initial trains came from Japan but Hitachi built a factory at Newton Aycliffe in Country Durham (around half way between Darlington and British Rail’s old wagon works in Shildon, which closed in the early 1980s). This factory is now assembling trains from bodyshells brought from abroad. Newton Aycliffe doesn’t have the equipment to build its own shells.
All three orders, Thameslink, Crossrail and IEP, are being built and delivered now. They form part of an overall order book that stretches to over 7,000 vehicles, a little over half the total UK fleet. These orders are split between five manufacturers: Bombardier, Siemens, Hitachi, CAF and Stadler. The latter is new to Britain while CAF joined Siemens to build Class 332 and Class 333 EMUs in 1997 and 2001 respectively.
CAF is building in Spain EMUs and DMUs for Northern, EMUs for TransPennine Express and Mk 5 coaches for TPE and Caledonian Sleeper. It announced last summer plans to build a UK factory in Newport, South Wales. It clearly expects rolling stock orders to continue, saying back then: “The plant would also enable the company to tackle new contracts awarded in the United Kingdom, a country in which the company expects to contribute to railway development in the years to come, as well as maintenance and train servicing activities. The plant is expected to be operating by mid-2018.”
Having built thousands of vehicles for Britain over the last 20 years, Siemens revealed in early March that it hoped to build a plant in Goole. Siemens littered its announcement with caveats: “This development, which could mean an investment of up to £200m, is a major step forward for Siemens’ journey in the UK. Siemens aims to start phased development of the 67 acre site later this year, if investment conditions are met, and subject to the company’s success in major future orders.”
Goole and Newport would give Britain four major factories to build trains. In addition, Alstom is establishing a refurbishment facility in Widnes. The factories come at a time when it’s never been cheaper to buy new trains. Not only is the price cheap but finance is also cheap. There’s never been a better time to build trains in Britain. Recent franchise awards have come with hefty fleet plans. Greater Anglia is replacing its whole fleet, South Western Railway will see a new inner-suburban fleet and West Midlands is looking to replace a good chunk of its regional fleet.
They key question is whether this glut of orders will continue. There’s a feeling of a bubble growing. And bubbles burst. If trains are left redundant part way through their lives, replaced by factory fresh versions, then financiers will start charging more to recoup their investments over a shorter period. Train operators will be faced with higher bills and so new stock will look less attractive.
The next few franchise competitions will show whether the trend towards new trains continues. Will the winning Southeastern bidder follow SWR by replacing its inner-suburban fleet? East Midlands need a fleet to replace its HSTs and here bi-modes look favourite given that the DfT will not fund electrification. That puts Hitachi in a strong position because it is supplying similar trains to several operators on the back of its IEP win. However, Hitachi is also struggling to fulfil its current order book with deliveries to ScotRail late and putting in peril a much wider cascade of trains.
CrossCountry’s fleet dates from 2000-2002 and is approaching its half-life making refurbishment more sensible than replacement. Great Western is introducing IEPs now, has taken on a fleet of EMUs for suburban services and cascaded early-1990’s DMUs westwards. Next on the schedule is TSGN, including Thameslink with its new fleet. Then it’s Chiltern was also has a modern fleet of DMUs followed by TPE which is yet to see the trains it now has on order. That takes the schedule out to 2021.
It seems very unlikely that major orders will come from these franchise, less for Southeastern and East Midlands in the next 18 months. Competition for orders will be fierce but as things stand today, Britain does not need four train factories.
Forget exports. Why would Siemens, CAF, Bombardier or Hitachi build trains in Britain for elsewhere when they have factories abroad that can take advantage of the European Union’s single market and trade deals. Siemens will build in Germany, Bombardier in any of several countries, Hitachi in Italy and CAF in Spain.
So here’s my prediction. Goole will not see a Siemens factory, CAF will have second thoughts while Hitachi’s facility will linger longer but fold eventually and Derby will witness several more near-death experiences.

This article first appeared in RAIL 848, published on March 14 2018. Postscript: Siemens won a London Underground order later in 2018 and plans to build the trains in Goole.


Turbulence ahead for West Coast bidders

To say the Department for Transport has set a major challenge with the next West Coast franchise is a gross understatement.
The winning bidder will need to take over today’s long-distance services from London Euston, run them punctually on a busy mixed-traffic route, providing modern facilities at stations, while also finding space on the trains for more seats and more space for luggage, prams, wheelchairs and bicycles. It will also need to work with HS2 to launch and initially run London-Birmingham high-speed services, before extending them to Crewe, while reshaping remaining classic services.
That’s a huge challenge. Equally challenged will be DfT itself. It has a poor record in franchising and will be glad it’s not fined for delays in the way it fines operators. Take the most recent version of its franchise timetable from last July. This schedule said West Coast bidders would receive their invitation to tender in November 2017. It finally landed in their inboxes in late March 2017. The new franchise was to start in April 2019. It is now scheduled for September 2019.
The last time the DfT tried to franchise West Coast, it ended in embarrassment. It awarded the contract to First Group in 2012 but found itself on the receiving end of legal action from Virgin and Stagecoach which forced it to reverse its decision. Virgin/Stagecoach has been running the route ever since and is now in line for another extension. The pair’s extensions are now as long as most normal franchises.
Glance over at the other Anglo-Scottish main line. Here DfT signed a deal with Stagecoach and Virgin that was crippled from day one because DfT had not accounted for changes in the economy. That’s hardly a good record from ministers and civil servants in Whitehall. Now they’re presiding over attempts to let the most complex deal UK rail has ever seen.
The winning bidder will take over just as Britain crashes out/leaves gracefully/stays in* the European Union (* – delete according to your view). Whichever option you chose, no-one can confidently predict the effect on the economy. And it’s the economy that has more effect on train operator finances than anything else.
The DfT appears to think Britain will be booming. Buried deep within its West Coast invitation to tender (ITT) is a table of what the DfT’s calls ‘baseline payments’. Essentially, they are the minimum it expects to see from bidders and will be adjusted by the effect of bidders’ plans. They start at £125m for the franchise’s first few months to March 2020, kick-up to £229m for its first full year and then jump to £402m for the final year before HS2 operations start in 2016. By my reckoning that’s a compound annual growth rate of almost 12%. OK, inflation will blunt some of that rise but it’s what BBC’s Yes, Minister might have labelled ‘brave’. For context, Office of Rail and Road statistics report that long-distance passenger revenue has grown 3% since 2012.
The winner must also contend with Euston station being demolished around it. This has real potential to divert passengers for Scotland to King’s Cross and the East Coast route. Passengers for the West Midlands have the option of switching to Marylebone for Chiltern’s line to Moor Street. Planning a franchise to bring considerable growth during disruption will not be easy.
In essence, the next West Coast franchise will be two. The first is a conventional franchise, the second is a concession to run HS2 services with DfT taking the revenue risk. This DfT decision is sensible. If it’s hard to predict the next eight years to 2026, then predicting how passengers will react to HS2 is impossible from here.
In asking for bidders’ ‘Shadow Operator’ plans for HS2, DfT is looking for how they will apply their experience to creating and staffing high-speed services and in advising HS2 in procuring its fleet. (All three bidders have partners with experience of high-speed rail.) This is possibly the wooliest section of the ITT, not least because it refers to a franchise agreement that DfT has not published. Nevertheless, it’s an area bidders must get right because it’s worth a third of the total quality score available.
By contrast, bidders’ plans for taking over and running existing West Coast services run to 44% of the total available. DfT is placing increased emphasis on plans compared with previous competitions. It scores bids on a combination of the premium bidders offer and the quality score (maximum 13) it gives their plans. It adds the premium measured in millions to the quality score multiplied by a factor. This factor is called ’n’. For West Coast, n is 250. In 2016’s East Anglia competition it was 33 and in 2014’s for East Coast it was 25. This means that it’s easier for a good plan to trump a premium. It seems DfT has listened to criticism that it’s only interested in money and was taking shaky bids on the basis that they promised impressive cash sums.
The bidders – First/Trenitalia, MTR/Guangshen and Stagecoach/Virgin/SNCF – now face a frenetic couple of months pulling their plans together before DfT’s July 13 deadline. I don’t envy them!

This article first appeared in RAIL 850, published on April 11 2018.


Network Rail needs an exceptional leader

It’s a gross understatement to say that Network Rail’s next chief executive faces a challenge.
She or he will need to take on a government company that faces demands from all corners for more trains, fewer delays, more upgrades, less disruption and all for lower costs.
The successful candidate will need to keep governments in Westminster, Holyrood and Cardiff close, devolve power to NR’s emerging regional structure but keep sufficient centralised control to allow the railway to remain a single network.
For most problems, there will be no right answer, merely a range that will always upset someone. NR’s current chief executive, Mark Carne, came from the oil and gas industry, an outsider in a traditionally close-knit industry. He arrived as NR began its current five-year funding period with a programme set by government (on NR advice) but not properly developed despite having funding figures and delivery deadlines attached. He leaves later this year with that programme partially delivered amid disquiet from all sides aimed at NR rather than the architect of the mess at the Department for Transport.
What has been delivered is good. Thameslink’s huge upgrade is at last entering its final stages with trains running under automatic control. Electric trains are running on Great Western routes and wires are now in place between Edinburgh and Glasgow and on lines in North West England, most recently to Blackpool. NR has delivered signalling and station upgrades and Carne’s watch has seen the project to switch to ETCS cab-signalling move to a more stable foundation.
In future, upgrade programmes will be assessed and funded on a case-by-case basis which should remove many of the problems Carne inherited. It might be that Westminster’s government moves away them claiming poverty so the next chief executive will need to be a canny lobbyist to secure the improvements his customers – passenger and freight operators – need. It would be a mistake to think everything is about keeping a transport secretary content.
Devolution should pull power and influence away from London. Within Scotland, the government’s transport arm already calls the shots, pushing on with electrification in stark contrast to London’s shelving of such projects. Wales will want more say in its railway and Transport for the North has just received formal powers to direct efforts within its boundaries. It will be pushing hard for more improvements, having seen the Department for Transport back-pedal on several schemes, blaming NR’s high costs.
Carne’s successor will need to push on with NR’s devolution with more vigour than I’ve sensed from Carne himself. The trick will be to establish a centre as small as possible to keep network benefits while keeping the devolved routes no bigger than they need to be. There is plenty of potential for creating bloated mini-NRs while at the same time losing overall control.
I reckon there’s one name that fits this conundrum. Andrew Haines knows his railway. He ran South West Trains, overseeing the introduction of Desiro EMUs around 2004. He later moved to First Great Western. He’s a former BR man.
Haines left the railway in 2009 to become chief executive of the Civil Aviation Authority. He presided over last autumn’s successful repatriation of 100,000 Monarch passengers who were stranded abroad by that airline’s collapse. He brings experience of the CAA’s role in overseeing safety standards, making efficient use of airspace and protecting passengers as consumers. In the rail sector, much of this is the preserve of ORR rather than NR. Yet is has brought Haines the experience of balancing the need to allow airlines to pursue their own commercial strategies while working within an overall framework. To my mind, this has parallels with NR’s devolved routes.
Government rather than NR oversees train operators’ delivery of their franchise obligations but it’s useful to have someone who understands operators’ business realities at the top of their key supplier.
So too is having someone who understands government and politicians. Carne had around his neck at a recent meeting of the transport committee was the type of ID pass granted to civil servants who need frequent access to the Houses of Parliament. The next chief executive must also work with potential financiers to find money to deliver upgrades that government declines to fund.
He or she will witness High Speed 2 building its line from London to Birmingham, causing considerable disruption around NR’s Euston station. Whether or not NR takes responsibility for the finished line, and its planned extensions to Manchester and Leeds, remains to be seen. Whether or not NR does, it will have to plan timetables that seamlessly linked with HS2 services as they run beyond their dedicated lines to serve towns and cities beyond.
It may be that NR divests its ‘system operator’ function that provides long-term planning and timetables as NR becomes just one of several rail infrastructure companies.
Carne’s job is not for the faint-hearted. It will demand an astute manager capable of working across many different views and perspectives. We should find out who that is later this year.

This article first appeared in RAIL 851, published on April 25 2018. As a postscript, Andrew Haines was later appointed NR’s chief executive.


Does train beat the plane?

To London. By plane. Yes, I’m sorry, I flew. It wasn’t my preferred choice but it did give me the opportunity to compare aeroplanes and airports with trains and stations.
I was making a day trip from Edinburgh. Door-to-door, it took me four hours by plane, with about an hour in the air. Door-to-door by rail would have been six hours. Airlines don’t do ‘turn up and go’ tickets so my return leg took longer because I’d allowed a couple of hours to cater for things in town taken longer than planned. With an advance-purchase rail ticket, I’d do the same.
If time forced me to reach for the skies rather than the rails, it also allowed me to compare them. I flew business class, which with British Airways brings access to airport lounges and on-board catering. This is the closest equivalent to first class on Virgin Trains East Coast, which also has lounges and meals.
In lounges, BA beats VTEC very easily. Edinburgh’s BA lounge was clean with staff on the front desk. Breakfast was porridge, fruit salad, yoghurt and pastries with decent coffee from a machine, tea and fruit juice. I couldn’t tell whether the machine used powdered or liquid milk. A typical VTEC lounge will usually offer tea, coffee, juice, crisps, fruit and biscuits. BA has a better selection of newspapers and magazines.
The gate for my plane was fairly close to the lounge but there was no plane by it. Instead, we all descended to the apron to board a bus that took us on a winding tour of the airport, through the part where they park all those odd-looking machines, over to the freight side where a BA plane waited, doors open and lights on. I heard no explanation for our excursion but there were other planes using the terminal gates and several stood empty.
I claimed my window seat and we hurtled down the runway, rotated and climbed towards the clouds. BA served breakfast. If it wins on the lounges, it can’t compete with VTEC’s breakfasts. Sausage, bacon, scrambled eggs, a tomato and mushrooms. The latter contributed the watery brown liquid in which the other components swam. Even ignoring my school-inspired dislike for scrambled eggs it was grim.
VTEC does it so much better although on my last rail trip south from Edinburgh, the VTEC crew explained that their kitchen was flooded so there’d be no hot food. Perhaps that was unlucky but when VTEC does serve breakfast, it easily beats BA.
VTEC’s first class seats are better than BA’s, which appear the same in business as in standard, with the only difference I could see being that the middle seat in each trio has a table fitted across it. Given the shorter time that you’re in an aeroplane seat, I didn’t think the VTEC-BA difference a problem.
I’m a sucker for those coastal views through East Lothian and the Northumbrian coast. This time I was treated to lots of clouds and the occasional glimpse of towns, fields and coasts as we headed over the Lake District, south towards Liverpool and over the Midlands towards London.
Seeing London from the air is always a treat. We flew in over the Chilterns, with Wembley Stadium an easy landmark to spot, followed by Arsenal’s ground just as a VTEC electric slid south through Holloway. Over the City, complete with the Honourable Artillery Company’s cricket ground in its centre – surely the most valuable piece of grass in town? – and then a sharp right turn over the Shard and London Bridge station’s glimmering canopies.
Waterloo, Houses of Parliament and the housing of West London slipped past, punctuated by parks, sports grounds, London Underground trains and those from South Western Railway as we settled into our final approach to Heathrow.
Without luggage, it didn’t take long to escape the airport via Heathrow Express. I found the trains easily enough but the ticket office takes some finding. Sensing my confusion, a man with a HEx lanyard around his neck offered to show me. “It’s not easy to find,” he said. It should have been, I’d walked past a few minutes earlier but it looks more like one of those airport information booths manned by bored staff. HEx, you need some bigger signs!
Heathrow worked for me because I was heading towards that side of Central London. Rail-air journey time comparisons can be heavily weighed by final London destinations. Had I flown to Gatwick, I’d have spent an hour travelling from the airport but for South or East London, it can work well.
Time was my main factor. What about price? I didn’t look at rail prices when I booked my flight a month out but, looking now, for a journey in late-May, VTEC first class costs £246 for an anytime ticket. There’s a £74.50 advance-purchase for the 0730 train which is around the time I flew. If I wanted a similar arrival time, I’d need to be on the eye-shattering 0540 from Waverley, priced at £148.50 for an advance fare.
For the same day, BA is quoting £112 for the 0635 from Edinburgh to Gatwick and £345 for the 0705 to London City (£180 for the 0735 into City) and £305 for the 0805 Edinburgh-Heathrow.
If I’d not been in a hurry, I’d have taken the train. I think too that with BA’s economy fares varying between £74 for the 0650 to Heathrow and £151 to City (there’s also a £38 for the 0735 to Gatwick), I’d be very tempted by VTEC’s £74 AP fare. For first class, that’s good value when compared with BA’s economy offering.
For how long VTEC will remain operating East Coast Main Line services remains to be seen. It bid too much back in 2014 and inherited an operation that was performing worse than expected. Passengers may not care which company’s logo adorns their train but staff do deserve to know.
Rail union RMT recently surveyed its members working for VTEC. The results are not pretty. The RMT makes no secret of its desire for a nationalised railway and I suspect those who answered its survey (560) are closer to this view than others (1,140) who did not, which makes it very likely that the results are biased against VTEC. Even so, the comments do not make easy reading. Try this: “Style over substance every time. If anyone with influence is reading this please look behind the shiny facade they [VTEC] present. They are by far the worst of four companies I have worked for on the ECML and do not deserve to be rewarded for failure.”
Or this: “At the time of joining I felt valued, the customers were well looked after, and the overall service ran well and efficiently. When Stagecoach and Virgin took over, they promised staff that they would help us provide a better service for the customers and would help ‘take us to amazing’. It became clear very early on that this was never going to be the case.”
Set against this is the latest National Rail Passenger Survey from last autumn that puts VTEC top of the franchised operators with 92% overall satisfaction (beaten only by ECML open access operators Hull Trains and Grand Central). VTEC sits top of the league for value-for-money (63% satisfied) with long-distance franchise operators. Top of the table too for punctuality (87%). What about overcrowding? Again, VTEC sits at the top of the franchised, long-distance operator table on 83% satisfaction with crowding.
And as Transport Focus never tires of saying, passengers’ top three needs are punctual trains, a seat and value for money from their ticket. VTEC tops the tables in all three areas.
It’s also profitable but VTEC promised government too much of its revenue to make the franchise sustainable. A realistic bid could still deliver large sums to government, harness staff support and bring an even better service to passengers. It might even convince me to drag myself from bed for that 0540 instead of flying.

This article first appeared in RAIL 852, published on May 9 2018.


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.


May 2018’s timetable wrecks services

Rail has closed the north-south divide. Northern’s services since May 20’s timetable change have been decimated with cancellations and delays. Similar problems wrack Southern’s network.
More accurately, the problems in Southern England came from Thameslink which joins Southern, Great Northern and Gatwick Express under the GTR umbrella.
May 20 brought wide-ranging new timetables across GTR’s network – the time of every train changed. Routes changed too as trains switched to using Canal Tunnel between Finsbury Park and St Pancras so that trains from Peterborough and Cambridge could run through central London towards Brighton rather than terminating at King’s Cross.
This was Thameslink delivering the biggest part of its £6 billion upgrade project that has kept thousands of construction workers busy for over a decade. I had the chance to explain some of this to BBC Radio 5 Live’s listeners late one Sunday night but the programme concentrated on fears the timetable would collapse on its first weekday morning. It duly did.
The railway has two timetables. One matches trains to tracks and the other matches drivers to trains. The railway calls the latter ‘diagrams’ and they are every bit as important as the times passengers see. Just as you can’t have two trains on the same piece of track at the same time, so you can’t have a driver on board two trains at the same time.
GTR has never had enough drivers, particularly on its Thameslink part that it inherited from First Capital Connect which had similar problems. Drivers need specific training on the routes they will use and the trains they will use. All those Great Northern drivers who have been taking Class 365s to and from King’s Cross for years now need to be passed to drive Class 700s through Canal Tunnels and Thameslink’s core. A core which has a new signalling system to further complicate training.
This training had to take place while GTR continued to deliver its daily service. It faced the choice of cancelling trains before the timetable changed to allow drivers to learn their new routes or cancel trains after the change because it didn’t have trained staff. It didn’t have the option of drafting in freelance or temporary drivers to cover. UK rail doesn’t have pools of such drivers and, if it did, they would also need to learn their routes and trains before they could work.
GTR’s senior managers were already reeling from vociferous criticism from the RMT union about changes to guard’s duties, groups complaining about discrimination towards disabled passengers and commentators labelling their seats ‘ironing boards’. They now found themselves well and truly wedged between a rock and a hard place in delivering timetable change on a scale not seen in decades. What should have been a story of more trains and more seats became one of chaos and disruption.
“On what should have been its proudest hour and the delivery of Thameslink, the rail industry in this incarnation couldn’t get it to work.” BBC reporter Tom Edwards wrote.
Northern’s service was also felled by incomplete driver diagrams. It had started planning in good time for a timetable that would see some diesel services convert to electric to release diesel trains to run more trains elsewhere (I’m simplifying this, there were plenty of other changes). Then Network Rail announced late in the day that it wasn’t able to finish electrifying the route through Bolton and it finished wiring to Blackpool later than planned. This forced Northern to ditch its work and start again without, it appears, enough time to properly plan its driver diagrams, leading it to try to deliver its new timetable with its old diagrams. They didn’t match, hence the widespread cancellations.
On top of all these problems comes the final collapse of Virgin Trains East Coast. Despite paying more to government that it’s nationalised predecessor, and posting chart-topping customer satisfaction scores, it will be labelled a failure. It’s rather like saying the person who comes last in an Olympics 100-metre sprint final is a slow runner.
I hope its successor, DfT’s London and North Eastern Railway (LNER) under Chairman Robin Gisby, has the cash needed to fix many of the problems with VTEC’s trains. Things like water leaks in kitchens, faulty toilets or the vestibule sliding door I’ve noticed twice in recent weeks being held open with nylon straps. Fix this crumbling edge of quality and the operator will be on a better footing. It was these details that jarred with VTEC’s claim that all was awesome.
Transport Secretary Chris Grayling must have wrestled the options before deciding to nationalise the East Coast’s long-distance operator rather than granting VTEC a not-for-profit management deal. Ideologically, he’s a privateer and this led many, including me, to think a management deal more likely. Instead, Grayling has delivered a strong message that he expects private companies to deliver their promises. As indeed they should.
Private companies will now be following the development of Grayling’s preferred public-private East Coast Partnership. This involves the operator taking the lead in East Coast operations despite being a smaller operator and despite Network Rail having a far greater influence on the line and its performance.
This leaves the operator as the fall-guy for all sorts of problems it cannot control. That could be a tough sell. Britain only has three private rail operators – Stagecoach, Go-Ahead and First. A fourth, National Express, quit following its East Coast experience in 2009 to pursue easier ways to make money elsewhere. Stagecoach is the 90% owner of ‘failing’ VTEC. Go-Ahead concentrates on suburban services and is majority owner of GTR. First is planning a London-Edinburgh open access operation and may be quite happy to stick with this plan.
That just leaves foreign companies, chiefly state-owned railways. Even their owners must be noticing that Britain is no easy ride. Nederlandse Spoorwegen has had to put money into Abellio’s ScotRail franchise and promised a huge premium to win Greater Anglia in 2016. Deutsche Bahn didn’t see a penny from its Arriva operations in Britain last year. MTR remains as inscrutable as the ageing cliche of its parent country.
In short, Grayling faces a real prospect that no-one will want to bid for LNER, not as a simple franchise let alone as an ill-defined partnership with a bureaucratic Network Rail and an indecisive Department for Transport.
Into this maelstrom steps Andrew Haines as Network Rail’s next chief executive. Welcome back!
He’s used to crises. When he joined First Great Western a decade ago, it was in the aftermath of a new franchise that almost immediately let passengers down, triggering a £29 million fine from government. FGW was little respected and Haines put in the foundations that saw the company improve its reputation and build itself into today’s Great Western Railway that is bringing new trains into service despite Network Rail’s woeful performance in delivering its promised electrification.
Haines brings experience of delivering 2004’s major timetable change to South West Trains and of introducing new fleets of trains to that franchise. He’s the first NR chief executive to have been a customer.
He will take over from Mark Carne in time to see the Office of Rail Regulation deliver its final determination into 2019-2024’s financing and operational, maintenance and renewal plans in late-October. He will probably arrive too late to influence NR’s delivery of December 2018’s timetable. Going by the rules, NR must publish December’s working timetable on June 8, two days after this magazine lands on shop shelves. With May’s problems unresolved, I suspect NR will be late.
South Western Railway is planning major changes from December 2018 and the month begins the roll-out of IEP inter-city trains to East Coast passengers. It should be the month in which ScotRail accelerates Edinburgh-Glasgow timetables having finally introduced its troubled Hitachi Class 385 electric trains. TransPennine Express should be bringing its Mark 5 coaches and Class 68s into traffic. And GTR will be bringing another raft of changes as it moves towards using the full capacity of its upgraded lines through Central London.
2018 was to be year in which rail services dramatically improved after years of planning and building finally delivered their benefits. May’s been a disaster. December must be better.

This article first appeared in RAIL 854, published on June 6 2018.


Chaos comes from changing plans

Order. Counter-order. Disorder. They might be the makings of military disasters but they apply firmly to railways in Northern England.
Most of the disorder flows from governments changing their minds. Privatisation started by keeping British Rail’s organisation of a passenger operator on each side of the Pennines. They later merged while express services were split into a new company.
The Pennine split remains under the surface of today’s Northern, not least because drivers on each side still have very different terms and conditions and receive different pay despite driving similar trains on similar services. Combining the two will surely make the railway more expensive because there’s no union that would agree to ‘level down’ pay. There’s little point in trying because you could be sure that the next reorganisation would split Northern in two once more.
The unified Northern started in 2004, launched as a franchise that would run little trains and see no growth. Leeds and Manchester had different ideas. Their economies boomed and people flocked to trains because they were the quickest way into city centres.
The north’s express operator, TransPennine Express, tried to turn itself into an inter-city operator, ordering new trains from Siemens. They came as three-car units and quickly filled. Government blocked moves to add a fourth coach in a short-sighted decision that made crowding worse.
Pressure continued growing and so the Department for Transport hatched plans in 2008 to replace part of Northern’s fleet of Pacers and Sprinters with new diesel trains. It promised an extra 158 diesel vehicles.
They never arrived which justified Transport Focus Chief Executive Anthony Smith’s comment about the original announcement in RAIL 585’s news coverage. He said DfT’s work looked like it had been: “pasted together overnight”. He added: “It might be a strategy but it’s not a plan.”
It wasn’t even a strategy because the DfT soon turned away from diesel to embrace electrification. In 2007, DfT’s Rail Technical Strategy said of the future: “Many trains will be capable of ‘bi-mode’ operation, drawing electricity from the wires where available but running on portable fuel where not. Battery technology will have advanced and may be capable of supporting rural services in combination with discontinuous electrification, avoiding the infrastructure costs associated with electrification in tunnels and in complex areas.”
By 2012, it had reversed this position and planned to electrify the trans-Pennine route between Leeds and Manchester via Huddersfield and onwards to York as well as a triangle of lines between Manchester, Liverpool and Preston.
It wasn’t long before DfT dropped that plan. It had badly underestimated the costs and difficulties of embarking on a massive electrification programme from a standing start. Network Rail and the industry couldn’t cope and projects began to run late. NR’s failures with its Great Western programme grabbed most of the headlines, and did most to extinguish ministers’ enthusiasm for overhead wires, but it did deliver Liverpool-Manchester to let Northern run Class 319 electric trains cascaded from London. London’s commuters were pleased to see them gone but they were a revelation for Northerners used to Pacers.
Today, we’re back to 2007 and that quote from the Rail Technical Strategy could easily pass a minister’s lips today with Windermere’s electrification shelved and other schemes pushed back to far as to be invisible.
Subtle changes marred plans. NR remodelled Stalybridge to form an eastern terminus for electric trains to relieve pressure on Manchester Victoria. DfT then cancelled the plan to erect wires to it, increasing Victoria’s pressure because it would now have to receive terminating trains from two directions.
NR found poor ground conditions when wiring Manchester to Preston via Bolton which delayed progress. This became a key factor in Northern’s recent timetable meltdown (RAIL 854) when Northern had to ditch its timetables that assumed NR would deliver this scheme in line with its latest promises.
Yet these are tactical problems. Above them all is DfT changing its mind and changing its strategy. Northern’s passengers could have had new diesel trains years ago had DfT stuck with 2007’s plan. These trains could have provided extra capacity, helping solve the overcrowding that’s blighted the operator for over a decade.
There is some good news ahead. Northern and TPE are receiving new electric and diesel trains. They’re being tested now and will be in service soon. They should make a big difference.
I’m sure passengers will welcome them. So will ministers. Not least because they’ll disguise the years of order, counter-order and disorder that have blighted Northern England’s railways. RAIL readers will know better.

This article first appeared in RAIL 855, published on June 20 2018.


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.