‘Nobody took charge’ to avoid May rail timetable chaos

Massive timetable changes introduced by Govia Thameslink Railway in May caused widespread problems
Massive timetable changes introduced by Govia Thameslink Railway in May caused widespread problems

‘Nobody took charge’ in the rail industry to avoid the chaos caused by the introduction of new train timetables in May, according to the industry regulator.

A three-month inquiry, led by the Office of Rail and Road (ORR), found that Network Rail, Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), the Department for Transport and even the ORR itself all made mistakes which contributed to the collapse of services.

Passengers using services run by GTR, in particular Thameslink trains but also Southern and Gatwick Express, suffered severe disruption due to cancellations and delays in the weeks following the massive timetable changes.

In response Transport Secretary Chris Grayling asked Stephen Glaister, chair of the ORR, to conduct an inquiry into the cause of the problems and make recommendations to stop it happening again.

His interim report, which was published today (Thursday September 20), found an apparent gap in industry responsibility and accountability for managing systemic risks.

It said: “The present industry arrangements do not support clarity of decision making: it was unclear who was responsible for what. Nobody took charge.”

While Network Rail was in the best position to understand and manage risks it did not take sufficient action, especially in the critical period of autumn 2017.

Meanwhile GTR was not properly aware of or prepared for the problems in delivering the timetable and did not do enough to provide accurate information to passengers when disruption occurred.

Neither the DfT nor the ORR sufficiently questioned assurances they received from the industry about the risk of disruption.

Professor Glaister said: “Central to the issues were that good intentions and over-optimism within the rail industry about its ability to recover missed deadlines left no time to uncover and fix problems.

“When problems arose, timetable planners were stretched and train operators were ill-equipped to help passengers. This meant that staff worked in very difficult circumstances to do as good a job as possible and I thank them for their efforts.”

The final stage of the inquiry will analyse what actions the industry, DfT and ORR must take to ensure that a similar breakdown of services cannot happen. Recommendations will be published in the final report in December.

According to the report, the compression of timescales in preparing for the new timetable meant GTR did not have sufficient time to complete afully-developed train crew schedule.

It found GTR could not have reasonably accelerated this process, following the late delivery of the timetable from Network Rail.

However the rail operator did have a greater opportunity than Northern, which also experienced problems, to plan and prepare its approach to driver training availability at an earlier stage.

The report said: “The inquiry has found that GTR did not adequately understand the magnitude of the risks around driver resources. GTR gave assurance to the industry and Government based on inadequate understanding of the risks. The assurances that it gave were in good faith but wrong.”

The inquiry also found that GTR trains ran without prior notice, information about intermediate stations or platform information.

Although running extra trains where crew and stock permitted was a good response to passenger needs, the report said doing so without providing any prior information was unhelpful.

It added: “The use of special stop orders was a reasonable and proactive short-term response to addressing passenger needs. The specific arrangements put in place for disabled passengers who had booked assistance was positive and welcome. Nonetheless, the impact on these passengers arising from inadequate information would have been particularly severe.”

Information provided to passengers was inadequate meaning they were ‘unable to plan and make their journeys with any certainty’.

The report concluded: “GTR’s realisation that the timetable was not working as planned was not communicated effectively to passengers who were given no assurance that the company had the situation under control.”

Patrick Verwer, GTR chief executive officer, said: “We welcome the preliminary investigation into industry-wide issues surrounding the introduction of the May timetable and will look at the findings to consider how we can make improvements for passengers.

“We are very sorry for the disruption the new timetable caused and have already contacted over 50,000 people offering up to a month’s travel cost in compensation over and above the regular money they can also claim.

“Thameslink and Great Northern services are now back on track with over 87 per cent of Thameslink and Great Northern services on time last week. The average for the last four weeks was 84.5 per cent, which is similar to the period before the timetable change.”

Andrew Haines, Network Rail’s chief executive, said: “Today, I’d like to add my sincerest apologies to passengers for letting them down with May’s timetable troubles. A whole system approach to timetable planning must be the way ahead and we have already started on that path with the new winter timetable due in December that will see some modest improvements. This approach will continue as we look to ensure that passengers see the benefit of record investment and new services, welcoming them with confidence rather than concern.”

A DFT spokesman said: “Professor Stephen Glaister’s interim report sets out how a series of mistakes and complex issues across the rail industry contributed to the unacceptable disruption that passengers experienced earlier this year. We welcome these findings and are working with the industry to ensure that such disruption never happens again.

“As a result of this disruption, we took immediate action to improve services and passenger information, and to establish industry-funded compensation schemes. We also set up the independent Glaister Review to understand the causes and ensure those responsible are held to account, and we look forward to its final report at the end of the year.”