Com­ment Spe­cial

The ter­ri­ble tale of two ap­palling timetable melt­downs

Rail (UK) - - Contents - Nigel Har­ris nigel.har­ris@bauer­me­ @RAIL

Nigel Har­ris is “em­bar­rassed” at the cat­a­strophic col­lapse...

My feel­ings about Bri­tain’s rail­ways over the years have ranged widely across the en­tire emo­tional land­scape: I have been var­i­ously de­lighted, proud, frus­trated, up­lifted, de­pressed, in­spired and ex­as­per­ated by this in­dus­try. I never thought I’d add ‘em­bar­rassed’ to that list. Un­til now.

The cat­a­strophic col­lapse of the timetable - rail’s ba­sic prom­ise to pas­sen­gers - specif­i­cally on the North­ern and Thames­link net­works has been the most chaotic, fun­da­men­tal and hu­mil­i­at­ing fail­ure it has been my mis­for­tune to wit­ness in nearly 40 years as a rail jour­nal­ist. Noth­ing comes close in terms of me­dia, po­lit­i­cal and pas­sen­ger vil­i­fi­ca­tion, lead­ing to a calami­tous shat­ter­ing of public trust.

The new Thames­link ser­vice was al­ways go­ing to be a ma­jor chal­lenge to launch, given that it was far more than a mere timetable change. The bold plan was to com­bine new heavy rail links un­der London with state-ofthe-art trains, new world-lead­ing sig­nalling/ train con­trol sys­tems, new timeta­bles, rad­i­cal new routes which would pro­vide a net­work of new di­rect jour­ney op­por­tu­ni­ties from the South Coast to north of London. The biggest win of all was to boost peak ca­pac­ity by 40,000. The in­ten­tion is to re­lieve mas­sive pres­sure on the North­ern Line and also to eliminate, for ex­am­ple, the need for GN pas­sen­gers to de­train at King’s Cross and take the Tube to the City. In­stead, the mas­sive-ca­pac­ity, new Siemens Class 700 peo­ple movers would run be­neath St Pan­cras and di­rect to Black­fri­ars, London Bridge, Brighton and Hor­sham. And vice versa, at the even­tual rate of 24 trains per hour through the bot­tle­neck two-track cen­tral sec­tion from Black­fri­ars to Kings Cross/St Pan­cras, us­ing the lat­est sig­nalling and train con­trol. So, Thames­link is far, far more than a mere timetable change. It’s the biggest and most com­plex sys­tem up­grade in decades.

It’s been planned for years pre­cisely be­cause of this com­plex­ity, im­pact and innovation. It’s such a mas­sive project that in his 2016 South­ern Re­port, highly ex­pe­ri­enced rail man­ager Chris Gibb rec­om­mended an ‘In­dus­try Readi­ness Board’ to pre­pare for the Thames­link launch. At­ten­dance is by five train op­er­a­tors, three NR Route Man­ag­ing Direc­tors, NR In­fra­struc­ture Projects, ORR and DfT - all at di­rec­tor level. It has met ev­ery four weeks since Jan­uary 2017, and while the IRB has no author­ity to or­der the changes nec­es­sary, its mem­bers cer­tainly have that ex­ec­u­tive power and they have been en­cour­aged to use it. The IRB re­ceives re­ports from an ex­pert In­de­pen­dent As­sess­ment Panel, chaired by re­tired and equally highly re­spected rail man­ager Chris Green, who re­views hun­dreds of sub­jects across sev­eral or­gan­i­sa­tions, quite sep­a­rately to DfT’s own project assurance team. The IRB last met be­fore the May 20 launch on May 4, to review more than 50 on­go­ing mat­ters nec­es­sary for the May 20 timetable in­tro­duc­tion, in­clud­ing driver train­ing. All mem­bers were ex­pect­ing a tough time and a num­ber of can­cel­la­tions in the early weeks were an­tic­i­pated - but generally the view was that they were ready to go.

Given the cal­i­bre of the in­di­vid­u­als, thor­ough­ness of process and the self-ev­i­dent de­tail of the dis­cus­sions, the sub­se­quent chaotic col­lapse and melt­down is all the more shock- ing. What on Earth went wrong? Sec­re­tary of State Chris Grayling’s view is clear: in a let­ter to MPs on May 29 (see pages 6-9) he blamed Net­work Rail and its timetable plan­ners for late de­liv­ery of the Thames­link timetable.

But as with all things on the rail­way, it’s just not that sim­ple. For starters, DfT not only is a mem­ber of the IRB, it also owns NR, so is deeply com­plicit in this fail­ure. To lay blame at NR’s door alone is disin­gen­u­ous at least and sadly comes across as ‘back­side cov­er­ing’. To re­solve this sit­u­a­tion de­mands greater clar­ity of cause, so here are some other con­sid­er­a­tions that led us to the cur­rent melt­down, which I be­lieve should also be sub­jected to scru­tiny. I’ll try to draw some con­clu­sions later.

Many of these prob­lems can be traced back to the orig­i­nal GTR fran­chise’s flawed timetable obli­ga­tions. NR said at the time (Septem­ber 2013) that the proposed timetable was “com­pletely un­work­able”. This was con­firmed by the Na­tional Au­dit Of­fice ( RAIL 844), but DfT went ahead and signed up the fran­chise re­gard­less of NR’s con­tin­u­ing warn­ings. NR was proved right. The timetable sub­se­quently had to be com­pletely rewrit­ten.

Fur­ther, in NR’s CP5 set­tle­ment, ORR re­quired a ma­jor re­duc­tion in train plan­ning expenditur­e by 2019 - yet at pre­cisely the same time, DfT was en­vis­ag­ing a huge in­crease in train ser­vices in fran­chise awards. This was not only hardly ‘joined up’ it was a time bomb, set tick­ing by both DfT/ORR.

The orig­i­nal in­ten­tion to in­tro­duce the new Thames­link timetable in a ‘big bang’ on May 20 2018 with a smaller phase in De­cem­ber 2018 was (rightly) judged by the IRB as too risky. Chris Gibb had ac­tu­ally rec­om­mended longer phas­ing in his 2016 South­ern Re­port, but DfT re­quired a fully worked-up case be­fore it would agree. The IRB could not there­fore de­cide on Gibb’s 2016 pro­posal of a longer eight-phase im­ple­men­ta­tion (be­tween Jan­uary 2018 and De­cem­ber 2019) un­til Novem­ber 2017, by which time many months of plan­ning time had been lost. Those who at­tack the rail­way for not ‘start­ing ear­lier’ please note.

The May 20 timetable launch was ac­tu­ally phase three of Gibb’s de­layed longer-term phased launch. This is why some com­muter sta­tions have had what ap­pears to be a short­term ser­vice cut, which should be re­solved in later phases when more Thames­link trains are sched­uled to be in­tro­duced. Even at places like Harpen­den, where com­muters are in an­gry, noisy re­volt, there are just two fewer trains (12) to St Pan­cras in the new Thames­link timetable be­tween 0700 and 0822 (there were 14 in the pre­vi­ous ser­vice). Also, given that most of those new Thames­link trains are brand new, faster 12-car Class 700 Siemens units, in place of the older, slower, eight-car Class 387 and ‘319’ units pre­vi­ously used into St Pan­cras, there is a sig­nif­i­cant ca­pac­ity up­lift.

NR of­fered a timetable, on sched­ule, in Novem­ber 2017, al­beit with hun­dreds of re­jected trains which op­er­a­tors had ‘bid’ but which could not be ac­com­mo­dated on this fiercely con­gested piece of rail­way. Af­ter much in­tense to-and-fro the week­day timetable was even­tu­ally fi­nalised, very late, on May 4, which meant driver di­a­grams could then be drawn up, which could then be turned into ros­ters, all quite rightly in as­so­ci­a­tion with driv­ers’ union ASLEF. Di­a­grams and ros­ters, af­ter all, dic­tate driv­ers’ lifestyles.

With just three days to go, with firm, real plans in place it be­came hor­ri­bly clear that there would be in­suf­fi­cient driv­ers with the cor­rect route knowl­edge to prop­erly launch the new ser­vice. Ex­ten­sive pi­lot­ing was re­quired (where a driver with route knowl­edge ac­com­pa­nies a driver un­fa­mil­iar with the route). This is enor­mously com­plex to man­age and used

“The bot­tom line is that the in­dus­try and govern­ment across the board have com­pre­hen­sively failed us all here.”

GTR driv­ers, man­agers and hired-in driv­ers, and in some cases re­quired three driv­ers on a sin­gle train, as route learn­ing pro­gressed. To the rightly en­raged com­muter caught up in hun­dreds of can­cel­la­tions and with their daily travel plans in ru­ins, the obvious ques­tion was: why weren’t more driv­ers given new route fa­mil­iari­sa­tion train­ing ear­lier? Here are the two big rea­sons:

Firstly, driver route knowl­edge ex­pires if not used (a cru­cial safety re­quire­ment), usu­ally af­ter six months of not driv­ing over a route. The timetable was avail­able on time from NR in Novem­ber 2017 (six months from the launch date) so it wasn’t pos­si­ble to route learn be­fore that as it was not known which driv­ers would be needed for spe­cific routes and the safety cer­ti­fi­ca­tion would have ex­pired anyway.

Se­condly, the new Fins­bury Park-St Pan­cras route via the Canal Tun­nels only re­ceived its first trains on Fe­bru­ary 26 - and while that was three months ear­lier than planned, there were only six trains a day, so route learn­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties were re­stricted. By early May, up to 60 driv­ers a day were route learn­ing - that’s around 10% of the driv­ers who would ul­ti­mately work the Thames­link ser­vice.

Had NR met the ‘T-12’ 12-week timetable dead­line, it might have been pos­si­ble to com­plete route learn­ing with the re­quired num­ber of driv­ers - but the de­lay of the Govern­ment de­ci­sion to phase the timetable launch, from July 2017 to Novem­ber 2017, meant this was im­pos­si­ble. We should not blame timetabler­s for an in­abil­ity to achieve the im­pos­si­ble.

OK, North­ern. This is slightly sim­pler in that the con­text is less com­plex: the rug was in­deed pulled from be­neath the op­er­a­tor’s feet by NR’s fail­ure to de­liver the Bolton Line elec­tri­fi­ca­tion project, the three-month over-run on elec­tri­fi­ca­tion to Black­pool, and poor NR plan­ning at Leeds that led to 170 op­er­a­tional plat­form con­flicts which had to be re­solved.

Fail­ure to com­mis­sion the elec­tri­fi­ca­tion scheme meant that DMUs which would have been cas­caded to boost ser­vices and ca­pac­ity else­where around Manchester could not be re­leased for their new du­ties. As if these weren’t bad enough, late de­liv­ery of the new Hi­tachi Class 385 elec­tric trains for Ed­in­burgh- Glas­gow ser­vices, plus de­layed in­tro­duc­tion of the for­mer GWR HSTs for ScotRail ( late-run­ning re­fur­bish­ment by Wabtec at Don­caster), like­wise pre­vented re­lease of a large tranche of Scot­tish DMUs which were also due to go to North­ern.

And then… North­ern was also hob­bled by on­go­ing in­dus­trial re­la­tions (IR) is­sues. Its abil­ity to re­act to the elec­tri­fi­ca­tion and DMU cas­cade prob­lems were se­verely ham­pered by train crew short­ages, over­time bans and rest day work­ing dif­fi­cul­ties. These com­bined to make life truly mis­er­able both for North­ern’s pas­sen­gers and its staff, who suf­fered the anger, abuse and ag­gres­sion of jus­ti­fi­ably en­raged com­muters.

Of all those prob­lems, only the IR is­sues could truly be laid at the door of North­ern man­age­ment - but this did not stop Manchester Mayor Andy Burn­ham play­ing to the crowd in a self-serv­ing at­tack on North­ern man­age­ment. Yes, he has a re­spon­si­bil­ity to stand up for suffering com­muters and busi­nesses, but it’s the po­lit­i­cal op­por­tunism that sticks in my craw. Es­pe­cially when you con­sider that many of North­ern’s prob­lems to­day flow di­rectly from the ap­palling ‘steady state, zero in­vest­ment’ Labour Govern­ment-awarded North­ern fran­chise of 2005. Burn­ham could have done some­thing about this when he served un­der Prime Min­is­ter Gor­don Brown as Chief Sec­re­tary to the Trea­sury, 2007-08. But he didn’t.

So, what to con­clude about all this com­plex his­tory, en­tirely jus­ti­fi­able pas­sen­ger fury, truly lousy in­for­ma­tion and po­lit­i­cal back­side cov­er­ing? Here are a few ob­ser­va­tions.

First, if you wanted fur­ther proof that Vic­to­rian rail­ways are a night­mare to up­grade to 21st cen­tury stan­dards, then look no fur­ther. I am re­minded of the febrile at­mos­phere around the grand as­pi­ra­tions, over-am­bi­tious cost­ings/timescales and tech­ni­cal reach of the West Coast Route Mod­erni­sa­tion lead­ing to the Pen­dolino in­tro­duc­tion of 2004. Any­one who con­tin­ues to ar­gue that up­grad­ing ex­ist­ing main lines is eas­ier, cheaper and more ef­fec­tive than build­ing HS 2 is de­luded.

Se­condly, any­one who ar­gues that rail­ways have had their day, are re­spon­si­ble only for a tiny per­cent­age of trans­port needs and are in­creas­ingly ir­rel­e­vant to­day, is like­wise way off the pace. Pre­cisely as was the case in the 20mph na­tion­wide speed restric­tions af­ter the fa­tal rail crash at Hat­field in Oc­to­ber 2000, also dur­ing the two-year on­go­ing South­ern dis­pute over driver oper­a­tions of train doors and in any Tube driv­ers’ strike, we have seen clear proof of how im­por­tant rail­ways re­ally are.

NR is of­ten crit­i­cised for in­fra­struc­ture prob­lems, yet on Thames­link we have a largely over­looked world in­fra­struc­ture first. Through the Canal Tun­nels and Thames­link core, the in­ten­sive 18 trains per hour (tph) ser­vice will be con­trolled by Euro­pean Train Con­trol Sys­tem (ETCS) sig­nalling, over­laid with Au­to­matic Train Oper­a­tion (ATO). And it works. There is nowhere else on the planet do­ing this. But rather than cel­e­brat­ing this achieve­ment with pride, this has be­come lost in the fog of war over the timetable.

The launch was not all bad news. Be­tween 0700 and 0900 at Plat­form A on May 22 at St Pan­cras In­ter­na­tional, ev­ery train ran, with no de­lay more than five min­utes. It is an in­cred­i­ble spec­ta­cle - trains ar­riv­ing and leav­ing one be­hind the other from each plat­form all au­to­mat­i­cally con­trolled on a metro fre­quency, with (and this is strange) peak traf­fic go­ing in both di­rec­tions at the same time. It is a glimpse of the in­cred­i­ble po­ten­tial of this rail­way, which will ul­ti­mately be de­liv­ered as this painful, hu­mil­i­at­ing les­son is pro­gres­sively learned. As re­tired ca­reer rail man­ager Michael Holden tweeted: “I know I al­ways pre­dicted that the Thames­link timetable in­tro­duc­tion would not go smoothly, but never in my worst night­mares did I imag­ine it could con­ceiv­ably be any­thing as like as bad as it is.”

I fear Chris Grayling made a mis­take by throw­ing NR’s train plan­ners un­der the bus in his let­ter to MPs. In the orig­i­nal GTR fran­chise, his de­part­ment signed off a timetable which NR in­sisted at the time would not work - and they were right. It had to be com­pletely rewrit­ten. On the East Coast Main Line ex­actly the same thing hap­pened - DfT signed off the Vir­gin Trains East Coast (VTEC) timetable with­out ref­er­ence to NR. In both cases of­fi­cials with power but in­suf­fi­cient ex­per­tise dis­missed ex­pert ad­vice from their col­leagues.

And in the after­math of the col­lapse of the VTEC fran­chise DfT ac­tu­ally val­i­dated this crit­i­cism by changing fran­chis­ing pro­ce­dures. NR is now not merely a con­sul­tee but a sig­na­tory to new fran­chises. Blam­ing NR alone (which must nev­er­the­less own its share of re­spon­si­bil­ity) is nei­ther fair nor wise.

That Govern­ment de­ci­sion to re­duce the core Thames­link fre­quency from 20tph to 18tph was made in Oc­to­ber 2017. Bear in mind that to meet the May 2018 timetable change that de­ci­sion was needed in July 2017, so by the time the Govern­ment de­ci­sion was made, the GTR timetable was al­ready com­pleted - and had to be torn up and started again.

This is why it is not right to see NR’s 450or-so timetabler­s blamed. They have un­doubt­edly done their best to keep up in the face of con­stantly changing and com­plex data, con­stantly shift­ing dead­lines, po­lit­i­cal heat and pas­sen­ger fury. Theirs is a highly spe­cial­ist skill. They are un­der in­tense pres­sure and if we lose them, yet greater chaos will be­fall us. I wish ev­ery­one would re­mem­ber this.

Wherever I look at the mo­ment I see a very wel­come, new and wide­spread sym­pa­thetic aware­ness of men­tal health. So can we all spare a thought for this small team of hard­work­ing spe­cial­ists who were sin­gled out for blame? Com­muters are not the only ones go­ing through hell.

The bot­tom line is that the in­dus­try and govern­ment across the board have com­pre­hen­sively failed us all here and we need to solve the prob­lem. We need to ex­plain to an­gry pas­sen­gers that the in­ter­con­nected nature of the rail­way means that a re­ver­sion to the old timetable isn’t pos­si­ble. And we need to see an end to the sit­u­a­tion where those in charge are not ac­count­able, while those who are ac­count­able are not in charge.


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