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.