Rail 855: Humpty Dumpty must be put back together

Here’s a good start. I agree with Nigel Harris. He was right to say that this is the biggest crisis facing the railways since he started writing about them, though the post Hatfield meltdown in 2000 runs it close given it featured nine hour journeys to Nottingham and two thirds of trains running late while Railtrack clearly lost control of events.

However, I think this current crisis is more serious for two reasons. First, the timetable change appears to the public that it was self-inflicted and even, as it were, scheduled whereas Hatfield was a response to an unexpected accident. The people running the railway knew that many services were being retimed and had time to prepare for it but nevertheless completely messed – there are other stronger words for this not useable in print – it up. Secondly, there seems no short term solution for to patch things together whereas at the time of Hatfield it seemed that once the engineering issues had been resolved, things would get working normally again.

Indeed, everyone I talk to in the industry agrees that there was not a single cause and that there are no easy answers. We are going to live with a poor performing railway in many parts of the country for a long time to come. Pretty much everyone involved is to blame, but some are more to blame than others.

The coverage of the chaos in the previous issue of Rail was very thorough, and the different contributions from the various reporters and commentators highlighted the fact that there was no single cause. Every aspect of the process of introducing and executing the new timetable – timetable planning, assessment of rolling stock requirements, implementation by train operators, oversight by the Department for Transport – was flawed and many of the mistakes could and should have been picked up earlier.

Roy Chapman, who has 40 year experience in the industry, put it succinctly in an email apportioning the blame for the Northern edition of the fiasco to: ‘The DfT, for agreeing an ambitious franchise, but not adapting to changing circumstances (including industrial relations problems and Network Rail’s failures); Network Rail, for poor project management leading to delays with electrification, and delays to timetable planning, causing consequences on train operators; Transport for the North, for not complaining openly and strongly when the problems emerged; Northern Rail, for failing to anticipate the consequences of the Network Rail failures and preparing inadequately for them. Moreover, as Chapman points out, was it a good idea to implement such a radical change just before the holiday season, rather than, as is usual for major changes, in December?

There is no doubt the problem starts with Network Rail. As far back as 2016, I was getting emails from inside Network Rail expressing concern about timetable planning and how expertise had been lost. Here’s a flavour of what was sent to me then: ‘The sheer and remaining loss of experience In Network Rail’s Train Planning function, both at a staff and management level, as a result of relocating their regional planning offices to Milton Keynes has had a major and negative impact on the quality and sorts of timetables “delivered”’.

Ever since then, Network Rail has been under pressure the Office of Road and Rail (whose chairman Stephen Glaister has, astonishingly, now been given the task of producing the report into this mess) to cut costs on train timetable development. This beancountery at its worst – ‘let’s cut 10 per cent off everything because you are spending too much money’. My view is that it is time to re-examine the role of the Office of Road and Rail and perhaps give it the SRA treatment (abolition) as I really do not see why Network Rail should be man-marked by people with no experience of running the railways. Network Rail needs to be treated like a grown-up, responsible for its own errors.

My correspondent went on to say this loss of experience led to all kinds of mistakes such as trains been scheduled to arrive at the same platform simultaneously, use of the same timetable slots for two services, trains being retimed without regard for other operators’ services and so on.

One of my sources has been back in contact in the last couple of weeks and told me that there were ‘an incredible amount of errors in several Northern timetable leaflets that include: route and map description errors (places listed not served) and entire groups of services omitted for all or part of the day in some of their composite timetables’.

Where I disagree with Nigel – there had to be somewhere! – is in where we think the fault lies. Nigel primarily blames the Department for Transport and, in particular, interfering politicians. In a way, I do too, but for my mind the culprits are the politicians who created the present structure of the railways which is clearly unsustainable – in other words, the various ministers in the Major government who forced through the privatisation and, in particular, the fragmentation of the railways, as well as their successors who have failed to recognise that the structure of the industry is fundamentally dysfunctional and not fit for purpose.

The big overriding characteristic of the present structure is that there is no fat controller, or, rather, there is no organisation that runs the railways. I am not, here, making a political point about renationalisation or not, as that is not relevant. It is the structure of the industry and the fact that all the people responsible for the railways never sit round a table together to thrash out issues. Take a deep breath as this is the worst sentence I have ever written: the timetables were drawn up by Network Rail which is overseen by the Office of Road and Rail on the basis of requests by train operators working to contracts drawn up by the Department for Transport and those timetables then have to be implemented by the train operators who are dependent on Network Rail for both getting them right as well and on ensuring that the track and infrastructure are of the required standard, and on having rolling stock that may had to be cascaded from other companies who may still need it or may be electric when they still need diesel or vice versa. You may have to read that sentence again but it is just to show that this is no way to run a railway! At no stage is there any one in overall charge, able to coordinate this complex and fragile organism that is the railway. Instead the decision making process is fragmented, incoherent and unaccountable. The Department has the power but not the ability and skills to manage the railway. The operators are caught between Network Rail and the Department with little room to manoeuvre. Jonathan Tyler, a timetable expert, put it neatly in briefing he has circulated: ‘It is proper for any government to have an overarching responsibility for policy and finance, but DfT is ill-equipped to exercise detailed control, especially in respect of timetable planning. Yet it has been doing just that, with excruciatingly precise Train Service Requirement  documents and instructions to franchisees to introduce various changes to services’. Apparently three franchisees promised extra services to Middlesbrough (is that because it is the constituency of Andy McDonald the shadow transport secretary) without anyone checking that this was feasible without huge extra infrastructure costs.

Apparently there was a committee which met every month to assess the readiness of the timetable change and, remarkably, its members advised the transport secretary Chris Grayling that it was OK to go. Ultimately, the decision was his since he is responsible for Network Rail and for the franchises and therefore could have called a halt to the timetable change. That shows the fundamental flaw. In the days of British Rail, there is no way that a minister would be in a position to make the decision. However, because of the dismembered state of the industry, there is no one else who would be able to make that call.

There is no doubt that the inability of the industry to deal with what should be a routine event – timetable changes – has its roots in the structure of the railway industry created for privatisation and that had it remained as a monopoly this would not have happened. As I have written many times, one of the odd results of privatisation is that the politicians have a far greater role than they did in the days of British Rail as this episode has shown.

Therefore to argue that renationalisation would exacerbate the problem is to look through the wrong end of the telescope. The bigger picture is clear. The railway is one business and needs to be run as such. Perhaps there is a way of doing that privately, but I suspect not because of the large amount of subsidy required to keep the railway going which means that ministers will always want to meddle. The trick is to have a strong arms length organisation able to withstand ministerial pressure. The challenge is to bring the various bits of the railway back together again under one umbrella, but rather like Humpty Dumpty, it is going to take a lot of glue. Jonathan Tyler suggests that having a publicly-owned Strategic Timetabling Authority with the aim of creating a decent public transport system ‘that provides a coherent and comprehensive  structure of co-ordinated services’. Now that would be a good start and we need only look as far as Switzerland to show how it works.

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