Rail 765: Dealing with disruption still leaves much to be desired

Dealing with disruptions is, according to Karen Boswell, the biggest issue faced by the rail industry. And, as she recognises, it is not one that the railways have coped with very well in the past.

As boss of East Coast Trains, she has been trying to improve the situation radically and she realises that it is not an easy task. She invited me up to York to discuss the issue and see how East Coast was addressing the problem, after we bumped into each other at a Railfuture meeting and I moaned to her about a badly handled disruption at Paddington that had almost made me miss speaking at the Cheltenham Literary Festival.

She is frank about the industry’s shortcomings: ‘This is something the industry has been wrestling with for years. The key is getting accurate information out. Everyone wants to give passengers as much information as they need, but sometimes the systems and their lack of compatibility mitigate against it. We are starting to address that’.

Indeed, it is the complex array of data sources used by the industry that helps explains the irritating phenomenon of passengers finding out more about delays through their mobile phones and Twitter accounts than from railway staff.  As Boswell explained, not all the railway’s systems upload in real time and therefore there can be a delay in the getting information out to staff (although, as I wrote in Rail 757, the various sources are, at last, being coordinated).

Indeed, the drive to improve the railway’s performance in relation to disruption has been made all the more urgent both because of the public’s access to technology and the rise in people’s expectations in our modern 24/7 over busy culture. The technology can be used both ways – to provide news of delays quickly, and sometimes via Twitter, to particular individuals, but also to garner information from them, in real time, on how an incident is being dealt with.

No longer do passengers accept bland excuses or obfuscation. Nor do they accept that those in authority are necessarily being truthful or open. People are far readier to challenge those providing the information which makes it all the more important that it is accurate and up to date.

The issue I wanted to get to grips with is who actually is in charge when something goes wrong? Not surprisingly, there are clear procedures even though in my recent experience at Paddington, there was utter chaos and a lack of anyone seeming to take responsibility. Indeed, according to some sources in the industry, it is more difficult when a Network Rail major station is involved.

Boswell’s Operations Director, Danny Williams, explained that there are three levels of control – the people at the coalface, those trying to sort out issues behind the scenes and ensuring that the right resources are available, and a key decision maker, a director or head of department, whose role is to ensure that the incident is managed properly, that the website and the social media team are giving the right messages and looking at ‘what tomorrow looks like’.

Separating out the staff who are dealing directly with an incident, from those who have to try to mitigate it its consequences and help those affected has proved effective: ‘The control will deal with the incident, while the disruption centre will provide a tactical view and free up the control from the hordes of people wondering where there train is.’

As Karen Boswell puts it, ‘improving the performance in relation to disruptions is about a cultural shift’. To that effect, East Coast has been involved in a big training programme among its 3,000 staff boosted by the deployment of lots of technology. Drivers, for example, now have an iPad which they use to log in to a program which provides details of their particular trip in real time, ensuring that they are aware of any delay in real time. Moreover, the information is then collated, with the driver providing explanations for any delays which ensure that East Coast collects data that can be used for delay attribution as well as for analysing any systematic failures.

She is passionate about staff engagement. There are lots of training sessions to ensure that everyone knows what to do in a crisis. Boswell points to the fact that in employee surveys, answers to the question ‘do you have enough info to keep our passengers informed’ improved 28 per cent over a year.

And she is clear about the need for an overall controller and has often taken on the role herself: ‘I have spent many nights up all night, and we have a responsibility to get people home at night – even if it is not in the time scale that we would like. There is no excuse to abandoning passengers at any stage.’

The staff have responded to the increased focus on customers. East Coast uses a notional passenger, a Mrs Jones, in lots of their internal training and publicity. The idea is to make the staff realise it is people’s lives that are being disrupted: ‘She might be missing her flight to Australia and that’s why we have to try to sort it out’, says Williams.

That lesson was learnt the hard way a couple of years ago when during a day of severe disruption, East Coast cancelled its last train to Leeds leaving hundreds of people stranded in London because the guard did not have route knowledge for the diversionary route via Cambridge.

This resulted in criticism from Passenger Focus, and a new ‘last train’ policy, which is to run it at all cost, even if it is very late and technically difficult. Of course at times  of total blockade such as a flood or major incident, then that can prove impossible but the culture has returned to the traditional railway adage of ‘the show must go on’.

A good recent example of the new ethos – or rather the old ethos revived  – was in early December when part of the overhead line was brought down just south of Doncaster. To repair it would have required a possession of 11 hours, far longer than the normal overnight quiet period, and instead the company decided to allow the down trains to coast, without power, through a 4.5 mile section. This is not as easy as it seems. Drivers have to be informed, the level crossings on the section have to be staffed and an emergency locomotive must be nearby in case a train does not make it through. However, thanks to the procedure, repairs were effected over two nights and a normal service was able to be run. Interestingly, over four miles, with at times a slight downward gradient, the trains, initially running at more than 100mph  only lost 10 to 15 mph through the whole section.

Will all this be lost when the new franchisee takes over in March? Boswell is convinced that it will not:

The industry has to improve, so a new franchisee should take this on and build on it – and add in their good practice; we are more transparent about this in the industry than we used to be. We are very joined up — we have had good relationship with West Coast, as we pick up their passengers when they have problems and vice versa. I see no reason why this should not continue.’ Mmm, given the privatised industry’s tendency to have to relearn lessons from scratch, I wait to be convinced – although if Stagecoach puts one of its top managers such as Tim Shoveller in charge (see below), then the lessons will have been learnt.




Mystic Wolmar’s 5 for 2015


Mystic is sticking his neck further out than ever before. First, the General Election result – you saw it here first: Labour 294, Tories 281, Libdems 30, SNP 23, the rest including UKIP (who will get 2) 20 and therefore the boy Miliband will walk into No 10 in a minority government. As a result, there will be a second election in 2015, just as there was in 1974.

Secondly, as a result, Labour will be under pressure to allow a public sector bidder for the upcoming franchises but will duck under a ‘franchise review’ which will last well into 2016 – and meanwhile no public sector bidders. Meanwhile, however, Stagecoach will put Tim Shoveller currently boss of the South West Trains – Network Rail Alliance in charge of East Coast in order to ensure a smooth transition.

Thirdly, and Mystic has come unstuck on this one before, there will be no growth in passenger numbers thanks to the reduction in oil prices, London employment stagnating as a result of concerns over the economy.

Fourthly, Boris Johnson will step down from being mayor in November as it will not then entail a by-election. And, a certain Christian Wolmar will get the nomination for Labour for the 2016 mayoral election after scandal engulfs one of his rivals.

And finally, on the tracks, there is going to be something of a crisis over investment, with projects being delayed and shelved because of cost overruns and austerity cuts.



Scroll to Top