The terrible tale of two appalling timetable meltdowns
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.
WHAT’S YOUR VIEW?