Time for RMT to embrace the role of on-board supervisor

ASLEF’s deal with Southern has no implications for other train operators. That’s the claim from Mick Whelan, the drivers’ union general secretary in the wake of his members on Southern accepting a deal for driver-only trains with a on-board supervisor.
There’s a list of exceptional circumstances in which that on-board supervisor (OBS) can be absent and the train still run. This absence is the core of the dispute that’s affected Southern’s passengers for nearly two years. Guards’ union, the RMT, has fought hard to retain guards without which trains could not run, although it’s now some time since those guards switched to OBS roles on many routes.
This boils down to the RMT fighting for a right to stop trains running by striking. I can easily understand why a proud union like the RMT would fight. It harks back to the 1970s when union leaders saw themselves as the vanguard fighting company bosses and fermenting disruption. They would say they were fighting against workers’ rights and conditions being reduced and jobs being lost. And jobs were lost in the 1970s and 1980s. BR made thousands redundant, their jobs no longer part of a shrinking railway.
Today the railway is expanding and jobs are being created. Southern made no-one redundant when it switched guards into on-board supervisors. It has since recruited more OBS. So the dispute is not about jobs and, in fairness, the RMT has not fought on jobs but rather on safety grounds. Analysis of platform risk shows it’s higher on trains with driver and guard than on trains with just a driver. This damages the RMT’s case. That driver-only trains already operate on many busy routes into London and elsewhere causes further damage. That London Underground’s carries many millions of passengers without a guard in sight sinks the RMT’s argument.
It has sought to portray tomorrow’s railway as staffless. It has played on fears of crime and calamity. Yet Southern is not withdrawing staff. It rosters OBS to trains and has tight conditions for trains to run without them. Southern must make sure those on-board supervisors are, indeed, on board. Exceptions must be exceptional.
Having fought Southern’s changes on safety grounds, the RMT responded to ASLEF’s vote by majoring on accessibility. It argues that passengers needing help would not receive if there was no guarantee of a second member of staff was on board.
Disability comes in many forms. Some are visible and some are not. Some disabled passengers need help and some do not. Most obvious and perhaps needing most help are those in wheelchairs. The gap or step present between trains and platforms at most stations cannot be crossed without a ramp and you need staff to deploy that ramp.
With a traditional driver and guard train, it will be cancelled if there’s no guard or driver. No-one waiting on platforms can board. Under the OBS model, the train can run without the OBS. If you’re waiting in a wheelchair, it’s very unlikely you’ll be able to board but other passengers can. Looking at this situation logically, factually and dispassionately, you will be no worse off.
But access rouses strong passions and rightly so. It’s beyond galling to be told you’re no worse off. Southern has rewritten its procedures for dealing with passengers needing assistance, formally condition five of its passenger and station licences – Disabled People’s Protection Policy. It asks them to call to book help 12 hours in advance for journeys on GTR’s Gatwick Express, Great Northern, Southern or Thameslink services and 24 hours for journeys with other operators. It adds that booking is not essential but says that help may take some time if a passenger just turns up, particularly at an unmanned or inaccessible station.
The Department for Transport’s ‘access for all’ funding has done much to improve stations by installing lifts, ramps and other things that make life easier for disabled passengers. Yet this help rarely extends to the gap between platforms and trains. I was waiting recently at St Pancras station on one of the Thameslink platforms under the station. This station only opened in 2007 and its Class 700 trains have only just entered service. Despite both being modern, there’s a large step from the platform to the trains. It’s incredible that in such a new station, with new trains, this gap exists. I can understand a gap between older platforms and trains that date from a time before we properly considered what passengers in wheelchairs but St Pancras beggars belief.
I don’t understand why trains are not fitted with powered ramps as buses are. I know rolling stock engineers dislike adding extra kit that can go wrong but is it beyond train builders to design and build effective and reliable ramps?
But this is for tomorrow. It will take time to make trains properly accessible on a ‘turn-up-and-go’ basis. In the meantime, Southern must abide by the procedures it’s written and which the Office of Rail and Road has just approved. It must prove wrong the sceptics that don’t believe it will keep on-board supervisors and those who don’t believe that it will make much effort to find alternatives, such as accessible taxis, in the more remote parts of its network.
ORR pored over Southern’s plans and put the company under increased scrutiny to check that it was meeting its promises. It found that over the four months of February to May 2017, there were 48 passengers affected by accessibility problems caused by an absent OBS. Of these, 19 booked help and 29 did not. At the same time between 2.5% and 3.6% of trains did not have an OBS when they should have.
This is higher than the 0.6% that Southern had been predicting but it told ORR that strikes and disruption caused these higher figures. ORR said in November that the rates for trains without an OBS for July, August and September were 1.2%, 1.8% and 1.4% respectively. ORR further calculated that the 19 passengers that booked help but didn’t receive it equated to 0.04% of all GTR’s booked assistance requests. GTR’s complaint rate about problems with access is in line with the national rate.
I risk incurring the wrath of access lobbyists if I say that GTR appears to be no worse than other train operators. But that’s again to say that disabled passengers are no worse off than before. I want to see them better off. I want to see access made easier. I want to see ‘turn-up-and-go’ travel become normal for everyone.
There are many driver-only services running without any form of second crewman. Help might come from station staff but passengers frequently say they want to see more staff. If the OBS concept proves successful, I’d like to think it might be extended to true driver-only trains.
So here’s a challenge for the RMT. Embrace OBS. Make it work. And having established it as a viable and visible way of helping passengers, then argue for it to be extended to driver-only trains, creating more jobs and netting more members. Or keep fighting jurassic battles about union power that other industries left in the 1970s.

This article first appeared in RAIL 840, published on November 22 2017. 

Decisive action today for a joined-up North tomorrow

False starts have bedevilled attempts to upgrade the trans-Pennine route through Huddersfield. It has long been the primary route between Leeds and Manchester carrying a mix of express, local and freight trains.
While it’s true that the route has some of the youngest trains on the network, these three-car Class 185s were to have been four-car until the Department for Transport intervened and insisted on shorter-formations. The result is that plenty of passengers must stand.
Current operator TPE is bringing new fleets. From CAF will come Mk 5 coaches hauled by Class 68 locomotives and from Hitachi a fleet of bi-mode trains. The coaches will run in 13 five-car formations. They are the first locomotive-hauled coaches since British Rail introduced Mk 4s in 1989. Hitachi will deliver 19 five-car Class 802s. (TPE is also to receive 12 five-car Class 397 electrics from CAF for services between Scotland and Manchester/Liverpool.)
Both represent a compromise. They should have been electric trains, fit to run under the wires that have long been promised for Leeds-Huddersfield-Manchester. Network Rail’s cost overruns on the Great Western Main Line put paid to the idea of wires through Huddersfield. TPE’s Class 802s will run electrically north of the York to Newcastle and eventually on to Edinburgh. They could simply switch should wires appear through Huddersfield.
Electrification to Scarborough and Middlesbrough remains very unlikely but were it to happen, then swapping Class 68s for electric Class 88s should not be difficult. So TPE has saved something of the situation created by Network Rail.
Instead of electrification, the Department for Transport is now promoting upgrade plans for the route and has asked NR for a plan by the end of the year. NR’s plan must permit six trains per hour and cut today’s 49-minute Manchester-Leeds journey down to 40 minutes, while Manchester-York must fall from 74 minutes to 62 minutes. Performance must been 92.5% PPM.
Aside from electrification, this is not the first time a network owner has looked at upgrading the route. Back in 1999, Railtrack was looking. It produced some colourful plans that explained where it planned to lay extra tracks and lift line speeds to bring a 45-minute journey between Manchester and Leeds with a regular service of fast trains every 15 minutes (RAIL 383). Little more happened, Railtrack became embroiled in the aftermath of October 2000’s accident at Hatfield and its West Coast Route Modernisation was running into major problems. Eventually, Railtrack collapsed and NR took over while the trans-Pennine plans gathered dust.
These plans included adding a fourth track between Thornhill LNW Junction (where the lines from Wakefield Kirkgate and Leeds converge) and Heaton Lodge Junction (where lines from Huddersfield and Hebden Bridge join). From Heaton Lodge to Huddersfield, Railtrack also planned an extra line to make it a three-track section. This would have given Huddersfield’s eastern approach a fast line in each direction and a reversible slow line between them. NR is now thought to be proposing a quadrupled line east of Huddersfield to Heaton Lodge Junction. There’s also talk of installing ETCS Level 2 signalling which will be a brave move given that it’s not been used on such a scale before. That’s not to say NR shouldn’t propose it. It has an alternative route between Leeds and Manchester – the Calder Valley line – over which trains can be diverted. It has to make the leap towards cab-signalling at some point but wise heads might suggest using a quieter line for its first long-distance ETCS application.
Heading west, Railtrack produced a proposal that saw two lines split into four on the approach to Marsden station with lines paired by direction. The 70mph fast lines would be on the outside with 60mph slow lines in the centre. This proposal returned Standedge Tunnel’s disused southern bore to use and would have seen trains run through a new four-platform station at Diggle before the railway returned to twin 75mph tracks.
Railtrack planned to remodel Stalybridge to pair its four tracks by direction and retain the west-facing pair in the station’s island platform. Network Rail has remodelled here, adding a second west bay with access only to and from the lines from Manchester Victoria. These lines carry a 45mph speed limit in place of the 70mph Railtrack planned.
NR added the extra platforms and capacity at Stalybridge because it planned to use the station to turn trains back here. Having introduced electric trains between Liverpool and Victoria, train operator Northern had planned to extend them the eight miles to Stalybridge to reverse there because this created more capacity to feed trains through Victoria, bringing more seats for passengers. This plan foundered on the rocks of NR’s electrification overspending which saw Victoria-Stalybridge postponed.
Postponed too are the seven miles of wires needed between Bolton and Wigan while Oxenholme-Windermere’s 10-mile single-track wiring scheme has been cancelled. For the sake of 25 route miles of overhead electrification, Northern is having to convert Class 319 electric multiple units into Class 769 bi-mode trains. This has all the hallmarks of the same crass short-termism from DfT that saw it block TPE’s fourth coach.
It comes despite the success of Northern’s Liverpool-Manchester electric services. They’ve seen growth at double the rate of similar lines, according to Northern Planning Director Rob Warnes.
Shelving these three wiring projects opens the DfT to criticism that it’s doing little for Northern England’s railways. The reality that the region is seeing more rail investment now than for many years becomes lost.
Blackpool North is currently closed while NR comprehensively rebuilds its railway from Preston. New signalling, track and overhead wires should transform services to the Fylde resort. There’s been recent work at Liverpool Lime Street to provide new platforms. Bolton once again has a fifth platform. Remodelling at Rochdale has delivered this town an extra platform and the ability to turn-back Manchester trains.
Biggest of the recent interventions has been the building of Ordsall Chord with its new bridge over the River Irwell. This allows trains to run directly between Manchester Victoria and Piccadilly and allows services to reach Manchester Airport (now with four platforms, double the number it once had) without blocking the throat at Piccadilly. More trains will be able to approach from Stockport and areas south and east of Manchester with these crossing moves removed.
All this work flowed from what was once known as the Northern Hub but is now rebranded to be the £1 billion Great North Rail Project. Next May brings a major timetable change of new and improved services. Many of these changes were planned for December 2017 but were delayed in the face of NR failing to complete its work in time. For Northern, May brings 60 extra coaches cascaded from other operators. Further changes will come when Northern takes delivery of new trains from CAF. It’s expecting 25 two-car and 30 three-car Class 195 diesels and 31 three-car and 12 four-car Class 331 electrics.
With TPE’s new fleets as well as Northern’s, the region is set for major improvements. Four-wheel Pacers will go – they may have saved the railways in the 1980s but their time has come. In their place will a mix of modern and modernised trains. It’s a far cry from 2004 when Northern was first launched as a ‘no growth’ franchise seemingly destined to run nothing but small trains.
I welcome this investment in track and trains. How about extending it to include those missing electrification links?

This article first appeared in RAIL 841, published on December 6 2017.

Franchise flashpoint puts DfT under pressure

How many times have you heard the warning ‘buyer beware’ or been cautioned ‘if a deal looks to good to be true, then it is too good to be true’.
I’m finding it hard to escape either as I think about the deal the Department for Transport signed with Stagecoach for Virgin Trains East Coast. Not only did it promise huge sums for the government – £3.3 billion – but it also relied on network improvements that Network Rail had not committed to delivering.
The warnings apply to both sides. I daresay Stagecoach and 10% minority partner Virgin protected themselves against NR but I’m left wondering how thoroughly the Department for Transport checked the deal. It must surely have known that its subsidiary’s enhancement plans were in turmoil amid missed deadlines and rising costs? Surely it knew that enhancements the deal assumed were happening had no delivery dates?
Much of the heat around Chris Grayling’s decision as transport secretary to cut the final three years of VTEC’s deal has surrounded the money the government will now not receive. No surprise, given that the lost money is nearly half the total VTEC promised. Shine a light into this murky story and I think other factors become visible.
Yes, Stagecoach can saunter away from a deal that wasn’t working for the company but I think it’s more relevant to see this as a deal that DfT could not enforce. Had it been able to then Stagecoach could only have escaped by handing the keys back and suffering the loss of reputation that struck National Express in 2009 when it walked away.
It would have been much harder for Stagecoach to then say it planned to throw its hat back into the ring to bid for DfT’s new-look, integrated, track-and-train East Coast Partnership.
Perhaps Stagecoach’s bid was so far ahead of others in terms of the premium it offered that DfT could not ignore it. Very likely, but don’t forget that DfT sets the rules. Having set them, it couldn’t change them. Having encouraged bids including high premiums, it couldn’t change its mind. Stagecoach and Virgin had shown themselves to be litigious when they threatened legal action after they lost West Coast in favour of First in 2012. DfT reversed this decision and probably worried that if they didn’t award East Coast to the pair then m’learned friends would soon be involved.
DfT has since changed the rules. In the most recent franchise competition, for South West services from Waterloo, DfT placed a much higher emphasis on the quality of a bidder’s plans, such that a better plan can win over a higher premium. That’s what apparently happened when First and MTR beat Stagecoach.
What of other deals signed by DfT around the same time as East Coast? Arriva won Northern and First won TransPennine Express with both starting a year after Stagecoach took over East Coast. Lord Adonis took to Twitter to suggest that First was talking to its lawyers amid talk that TPE was losing money. RMT repeated them as it took full advantage of the DfT’s crisis – although I can’t see that a government crisis is a good reason for nationalisation.
First certainly put together an ambitious bid for TPE. It sees rising premium payments, such that it will be paying DfT £179 million in its final year. Whatever it’s thinking behind the scenes, in public First is saying it’s not called in lawyers but does admit that passenger numbers are behind projections. At this point, regular peak passengers might be wondering where any more people could be carried.
However, TPE expects its growth to come from bringing new fleets into service with more coaches and more seats. Filling these extra seats will be key to First making the figures work. Given how busy today’s trains are and how busy the M62 is, filling them shouldn’t be impossible. There’s demand the railway can’t yet satisfy.
First’s test will come in a few years when it has its extra trains. Until then, it’s wise to concentrate on delivering its franchise.
Northern has its own new fleets on the way and will need to fill the extra seats that result. It also has problems because it’s embroiled in a bitter dispute with the RMT about how it plans to deploy staff. Not that it’s revealed much about these plans, nearly two years after it took over. Under its relatively new MD, David Brown, it needs to be much more open. It will not convince people by keeping quiet.
At DfT’s behest, it must introduce driver-only trains. DfT specified that from 2020 at least half of Northern’s passenger mileage should run without the need for a second member of staff on board. I hear but don’t yet have concrete proof that Arriva bid on the basis of a much higher proportion of driver-only trains. It can’t blame DfT for this.
The RMT portrays its DOO battle as political. This raises an interesting question for Grayling: Does he want to be beaten by a left-wing trade union? If he doesn’t, then he may well have to help Northern. But if he has to help, then he’ll be admitting that franchising has some glaring flaws.
Chief of them is that franchising appears to be a one-way deal. Doubtless, there are bidders, even winners, that carefully examine what DfT wants, carefully consider how to deliver this and bid accordingly. There are also bids that go gung-ho to win at any price. They can get away with this because the DfT usually changes its mind once a franchise in underway. Change invites renegotiation and renegotiation changes premiums and lets foolish franchisees off the hook. Once again, I can’t see that nationalisation will help solve the problems DfT causes when it changes its mind.
Now it seems that Grayling is to throw all the pieces into the air with future deals based on joint working with Network Rail. This will be interesting because I can’t help thinking that NR interprets the phrase ‘joint working’ as ‘our way’. I can see sparks flying when this buts against the commercial world.
I’d be more convinced if DfT could point to any successful alliances between NR and train operators. There was one for South West Trains but it collapsed amid financial arguments. With NR now under even tighter government financial control, and subject to annual spending limits, there will be even more scrutiny and less room to manoeuvre. Any hint that NR’s public money has crossed internal walls within an alliance to train operators will be frowned upon.
Grayling’s rail strategy points to Scotland as the example of alliancing success. Here ScotRail has just introduced electric trains to its main Edinburgh-Glasgow route but it had missed two deadlines already after NR failed to complete electrification on time. These electric trains are very welcome although ScotRail is temporarily using Class 380s in place of Class 385s which have not arrived soon enough.
Performance is improving but has a way to go to reach its target for the end of the year. For all this, Scotland is more likely to make an alliance work than is an East Coast Partnership. That’s simply because the geography is simpler. Only two lines cross the boundary and its funding and network specification are set locally by Scottish ministers. ECP will have complex boundaries and the East Coast TOC will be a minority operator along many sections of the route.
That’s not to say the idea won’t work but it will be complex and difficult. What sounds great in Whitehall may yet translate into a headache for those trying to run the railway. I’d even hazard a guess that Stagecoach will see its VTEC franchise extended beyond 2020 as DfT struggles to turn Grayling’s idea into a workable invitation to tender. Not least because it has plenty of other franchise competitions in the queue and they keep slipping right.

This article first appeared in RAIL 842, published on December 20 2017. Postscript: Stagecoach lost its East Coast franchise later in 2018 when government nationalised East Coast.

2018’s improvements must not be damaged by poor delivery and poor headlines

January proved to be a rocky start to 2018. Every year the month brings complaints about rising fares but this year there was real venom behind them. Ministers and managing directors must pay careful attention to these complaints and cut through the shouting to find a way through.
The fares story coincides with those about Christmas close-downs. This makes it look like train operators want more money while not running trains. Of course, it’s more complex than that. With fewer people travelling to and from work, there are fewer passengers overall at Christmas but there are many who want to travel to visit family – and return home as soon as politely possible. Every year also brings arguments about the lack of trains on Boxing Day. Some operators run but most don’t.
Christmas closures appear as disruption rather than improvements. If Network Rail is to continue using Christmas closures, it’s time to switch that emphasis. This will not be easy. For example, Thameslink passengers have been seeing closures for many years with their linked improvements only now drawing close. And just as they drew close, plans changed to bring a phased introduction rather than a ‘big bang’. There may be sound reasons for this but it delays the improvements passengers have been promised.
Thameslink also shows how long it can take to modernise a route. Within days of fully opening its impressive London Bridge station rebuild that started in 2009, Network Rail announced that it was closing the Brighton Main Line next October for a week, with a similar closure following in February 2019. No trains will run between Three Bridge and Brighton/Lewes. NR needs these closures to repair four major tunnels, improve their drainage and renew tracks, points, signalling and power supplies. It has timed the work for school half-terms, when there are slightly fewer commuters. There will be disruption but there’s no easy way to repair something like Balcombe’s damp 1,141-yard tunnel. Network Rail suggested the alternative was 84 weekend closures.
I think part of the problem is that people don’t link closures (and their disruption) with improvements. Or, perhaps, the improvements simply shift the disruption somewhere else. Nothing is done until everything is done.
This year should deliver real improvements with radical improvements to trains and timetables across much of the country. Train operators and Network Rail must relentlessly promote the better railway that 2018 brings. Once they think they’ve done enough, they should do some more.
Let’s start with the trains. Passengers from Paddington are already seeing differences. Hitachi’s IEP multiple-units continue to enter service, replacing the loved but ageing HSTs. They look sleek and modern, inside and out. They will shorten journeys when timetables change to take advantage of their better acceleration when running on electrified lines. I was impressed with the trip I took towards the end of last year.
GWR is also bringing more Class 387s electric units into service. While the Turbo DMUs they replace remain relatively modern, the electrics deliver more seats, which Thames Valley commuters must surely welcome. In addition, the ‘387s’ allow GWR to send its Turbos westwards to replace older trains around Bristol. Here, they are providing more capacity because they’re longer than the two-car Sprinters they’re generally replacing.
This cascade of stock will be a defining moment of 2018. It’s a complex reshuffle and will need close attention by train operators and stock owners if it’s to run smoothly. And run smoothly it must if the railway is to avoid more damaging headlines.
GWR is sending surplus Sprinters north to boost Northern’s fleet. Here they join others of their type which should allow longer trains to run, sating peak appetite. They also allow Northern to begin ridding its fleet of four-wheeled Pacers. These DMUs have had a chequered history. They’ve never been popular but they helped save British Rail’s provincial and rural routes in the 1980s when BR’s first-generation DMUs were visibly tiring.
Travelling north through Darlington in early January, I saw another cascade in action. Sitting in the Up Goods Loop were a pair of Class 158, painted blue with white saltire decals cleverly linking their coaches into units. Shorn of ScotRail decals they were heading from Edinburgh’s Haymarket depot to Neville Hill in Leeds to join Northern’s fleet.
ScotRail can release them because it’s just seen its prime Edinburgh-Glasgow route electrified and is beginning to see Class 385s built by Hitachi make their way down the East Coast Main Line from the factory at Newton Aycliffe. In the interim, Class 380s run some ‘E&G’ services with the Class 170s DMUs introduced by National Express still working most. In time, they will switch to other routes, allowing ‘158s’ to head to England. The rate at which they might go depends on the flow of ‘385s’ the other way and this is causing many fingers to be crossed.
Hitachi is under plenty of pressure. It’s supplying IEPs to Great Western Railway and must introduce them to Virgin Trains East Coast this year as well. With ‘Virgin’ in large red letters on their sides, IEP’s introduction to King’s Cross won’t be a half-measure and VTEC will want to make sure passengers flock to them. Hitachi only starts receiving income from the IEPs it’s built when they run in service so there’s plenty of incentive to see them working. But ScotRail has a great deal riding on its new electrics as does Northern.
As if to illustrate the complexity of this year’s cascade, ScotRail is also relying on Hitachi delivering IEPs to Great Western because this releases HSTs to form ‘pocket rockets’ that will serve Scotland’s seven cities, replacing Class 170s. ScotRail must rebuild their coaches to current access standards and fit power doors and do it by May when they’re due into service.
That’s just a flavour of the sort of cascade 2018 will see. The other aspect of 2018’s changes comes with May’s timetable. It’s at a scale never seen before. Network Rail reckons that it will be changing 46% of the schedules in its working timetable. The changes in timings then knock-on to cause the total proportion of changed schedules to over 60%. That equates to over 100,000 schedules. Compare this with the 14,500 that NR changed in May 2017 and the 18,000 it changed last December.
All must be done, checked and loaded into railway systems in time for passengers to start booking tickets 12 weeks out. Train operators will need to change crew and stock diagrams and make sure crews have up-to-date knowledge of the routes and trains they will be using. Those crews will need to get to grips with new stopping patterns and make sure they don’t inadvertently miss a changed stop. Passengers, particularly regular commuters, will need to change their habits to match new timetables. Much can go wrong. Some things probably will and might catch headlines and generate complaints.
Once again, perceptions come into play. Passengers might notice rebuilt stations. They might notice new trains. They will notice delays. Poor punctuality will blunt years of hard work.
If you see those headlines or hear those complaints, I hope you’ll keep the context of this year’s changes in mind.

This article first appeared in RAIL 845, published on January 31 2018. Postscript: 2018 proved to be a year of poor delivery and damaging headlines.

Make fares simpler by ditching ‘advance purchase’

Easier said than done. Which probably explains why we hear so many calls for simpler fares but see so little action.
In general terms, railway companies offer single and return tickets, flexible and inflexible tickets and all in first or standard class. Flexible tickets range from those valid for travel at any time and those only valid at certain times (usually outside peak periods). Inflexible tickets tie a passenger to a particular train. The more flexibility you need, the more you’ll usually pay. The exception are season tickets which are the most flexible available but have high prices that mask their amazing value for money for each individual journey – provided you make many journeys, as daily commuters generally do. The result is bewildering choice of fares.
I’m writing this just before jumping on a train from York to Newcastle. National Rail Enquiries (NRE) shows a CrossCountry (XC) at 1432, a slightly slower Virgin Trains East Coast train (VTEC) at 1435 and then another XC at 1448.
Today’s 1432 is cancelled. The 1435 is offering me a £37.70 off-peak single as its cheapest fare. I could use that on other trains because it’s an inter-available fare although NRE doesn’t explicitly say so. I could buy a £43.60 ticket that says it’s ‘anytime’. That means it’s not subject to peak restrictions. I’m also offered a £53.40 first class anytime fare and a £61.00 first class off-peak fare. Hovering my cursor over the label next to those fares reveals that the £53.40 fare is an anytime day single so could be used on other trains. The more expensive off-peak fare reveals itself to be a return fare valid only on VTEC.
In total, NRE offers 11 different fares for this York-Newcastle journey. They include a £96.00 off-peak fare that turns out to be a North Country Rover but NRE doesn’t explain what that means. There are also ‘short returns’ but it’s not clear whether this refers to time or distance.
Meanwhile the 1448 is offering 14 different fares. Some are the same as those for the VTEC train – the North Country Rover is there as well as the ‘valid on any trains’ fares. XC’s cheapest is a £14.90 advance ticket because it offers advance fares until only minutes before the train is due. It also offers advance fares for £17.50, £21.70 and £30.20. All four fares will only be valid on that day’s 1448 so I can’t understand why the more expensive trio are visible. Surely, I’ll be buying exactly the same product for £14.90 as for £30.20?
TransPennine Express has a 1508 in case I miss the other two by taking too long to decide about my ticket. It has 18 different fares on offer. Once again, some are actually returns, some are valid only on TPE and some are the same tickets offered by the other companies and valid with any of the competing operators. Confused? Yes, I am. NRE presents too many choices. It’s demonstrated why people complain that rail fares in Britain are too complicated. Despite my asking about a single journey, it presented fares that were for a return journey but didn’t clearly label them as such. Better perhaps not to present them?
Now, it’s true that I clicked to expand the simpler lists that NRE initially presented of the cheapest fare for each train and the cheapest fare overall. I could just have clicked the ‘buy now’ button for that XC £14.90 fare.
Using brfares.com I found there are 77 different single fares between York and Newcastle, with the vast majority advance fares and the cheapest a TPE advance ticket for £4.
The easiest way to simplify fares would be to remove this plethora of advance purchase tickets. They accounted for only 15.1% of GB ticket revenue in 2016/17, up from 12.1% in 2010/11 which is the first year for which the Office of Rail and Road has statistics. By contrast, off-peak tickets brought in 31.6% of total revenue, peak tickets 29.0% and seasons 23.0%. ORR classed a further 1.3% as ‘other’ – that’ll be the North Country Rover, its cousins and other oddities.
The message is clear. Most of the confusion and complication in rail fares comes from all those advance purchase tickets that contribute so little overall. Ditch them and have done.
Harder to say what effect this might have on train operator and government finances. Some passengers would desert rail if AP fares disappeared because the walk-on alternatives are usually more expensive. But some would stay and pay the extra. So it’s not clear just how much of the £1.4 billion that advance fares garnered in 2016/17 would be completely lost.
They also have some advantages for train operators. They keep all the income earned from AP fares that are valid only on their trains. The income from inter-available tickets must be shared with other operators serving the same stations with the proportion depending on the results of occasional surveys of passengers. It means that if an operator ups its game with competitive fares and great on-board service, it can net the results of that work by making those fares valid only on its services.
Cheaper advance tickets allow operators to fill seats that might otherwise by empty. For marginal costs, rail companies can increase their income and reach their premium payment goals. From this perspective, the extra revenue is almost free. Yet there’s a sting in the tail of advance purchase tickets. They come with seat reservations and this raises the prospect of passengers with more expensive tickets standing. Not that this costs train operators much other than goodwill – they sell only travel not seats.
Advance tickets are more trouble than they’re worth. Ditch them. Yes, they’ll be an outcry but weather it and rail tickets will be so much simpler.

This article first appeared in RAIL 849, published on March 28 2018.

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.

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.