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Passengers were let down by rail industry failures, says Office of Rail Regulator

Transport secretary announces review of rail sector and hints at a more integrated future in BBC interview

Mark Moran
20 September 2018
The Office of Rail and Road (ORR) has published its interim inquiry report into what caused the May 2018 timetable disruption
The Office of Rail and Road (ORR) has published its interim inquiry report into what caused the May 2018 timetable disruption

 

The timetable chaos that caused severe disruption on Britain's railways in May resulted from a combination of mistakes made by Network Rail, two train operators and the Department for Transport, the rail industry regulator has decided.

The Office of Rail and Road (ORR) has published its interim inquiry report into what caused the May 2018 timetable disruption, which led to passengers enduring delays and cancellations as they could not predict how long a journey may take, or even if it was possible to travel.

The three-month enquiry found that Network Rail, Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), Northern, the Department for Transport (DfT), and the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) all made mistakes, which contributed to the collapse of services, particularly on the GTR and Northern routes.

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has responded by establishing a review of the rail sector in order to make sure such problems do not happen again. The review will be headed by former British Airways boss Keith Williams.

Speaking on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4, Grayling pointed to Japan where the rail companies were integrated and London where contracts were performance-related. “The fragmentation of the industry today doesn't work,” he said. “What I am absolutely certain of is we need an integrated railway.”

Understanding the problems

On 20 May, the rail industry attempted to introduce the biggest timetable change in a generation. The £1bn-plus Great North Rail Project, which includes the North West Electrification Programme (NWEP), and the £7bn Thameslink programme should have added more services to new destinations, introduced new rolling stock, provided more seats for passengers and improved reliability.

The upgrade - which involved changes to 46% of train times - mainly affected Northern Trains in the north west of England and Govia Thameslink (GTR) routes into London. Over a period of several weeks, GTR and Northern cancelled up to 470 and 310 scheduled trains respectively each weekday.

The inquiry found problems caused by delays to completing NWEP were worsened by Network Rail, which wrongly believed it could make up the time. It also found that the DfT’s decision to agree to phase the introduction of Thameslink stretched resources at Network Rail’s timetabling department (System Operator) and that the industry, as a whole, failed to foresee that these combined factors created a serious risk that the revised timetable could fail.

The inquiry has determined that during the planning stages the industry placed engineering and planning concerns ahead of serving its passengers, and that was made worse by the poor information train operators provided when disruption happened.

A key issue, found by the inquiry, is that there is an apparent gap in industry responsibility and accountability for managing systemic risks, and that needs to change.

Other key findings are:

  • The System Operator (SO) function within Network Rail was in the best position to understand and manage the risks, but did not take sufficient action, especially in the critical period of autumn 2017
  • Neither GTR nor Northern were properly aware of or prepared for the problems in delivering the timetable and they did not do enough to provide accurate information to passengers when disruption occurred
  • Both DfT and ORR are responsible for overseeing aspects of the industry, but neither sufficiently questioned assurances they received from the industry about the risk of disruption.

The ORR's report into its role in the timetabling issues is published separately.

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.

ORR and inquiry chairman, Professor Stephen Glaister said: “The May 2018 timetable was meant to offer more services and reliability, but in reality it led to major disruption for passengers. Today’s report uncovers the issues that Network Rail, GTR, Northern, ORR and the DfT together need to address to stop this disruption happening again.

“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."

Reviewing the rail system

The Department for Transport has revealed that former British Airways chief executive Keith Williams is to lead major review of rail industry. The DfT said the review will build on the government’s franchising strategy, bringing track and train closer together to reduce disruption and improve accountability, and considering regional partnerships and how we can use innovation to improve services and value for money for passengers.

Williams will be supported by an external panel and will report next year. The government will publish a white paper on the review’s recommendations, with the implementation of reforms planned to start from 2020.

The panel will consider all parts of the rail industry, from the current franchising system and industry structures, accountability, and value for money for passengers and taxpayers.

The panel membership will include Roger Marsh, who chairs the body representing the 11 local enterprise partnerships in the north of England and will bring his expert knowledge and experience of business and transport needs across the north of the country.

The review will analyse all aspects of the industry, alongside the country’s changing travel and work patterns. It will make recommendations to improve the current franchising model in terms of reliability, delivering better services and value for money for passengers, commercial sustainability and innovation.

The review will also take into account the findings of the final ORR report at the end of the year.

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling said: “Privatisation has delivered huge benefits to passengers on Britain’s railways – doubling passenger journeys and bringing in billions of private investment. But it is clear that the structure we inherited is no longer fit to meet today’s challenges and cope with increasing customer demand. Following the disruption this summer we took immediate action to improve services and ensure the industry compensated passengers.

“We’ve been clear that the railway needs reform to prioritise its passengers, and we have set out plans for closer partnerships between operators of track and train, including on the LNER and South Eastern networks. But as part of our vision for the future of mobility, we need to go further and more quickly, to get the best from the public and private sectors and deliver the railway we need for the 21st century. It is vital that this review leaves no stone unturned and makes bold recommendations for the future.”

Keith Williams said: “It’s clear that Britain’s railway has seen unprecedented growth and is carrying more passengers than it did a century ago on a network a fraction of the size. But it also clear it faces significant challenges.”

The review will focus on:

  • leveraging the commercial model to ensure improved services for passengers and taxpayers, and more effectively balance public and private sector involvement
  • the roles and structures of all parts of the industry, looking at how they can work together more effectively to reduce fragmentation, improve passenger services and increase accountability
  • how the railway can support a fares system that delivers value for money for passengers and taxpayers; and improved industrial relations to maintain performance for passengers.

The government will set out the terms of reference of the review and the membership of the panel when Parliament returns. The Transport Secretary has asked that the review engages with a wide range of stakeholders in all parts of the country, including passenger representatives, businesses, and local and devolved bodies and governments.

The department has reviewed all ongoing franchise competitions and other live rail projects in the context of the rail review. Due to the unique geographic nature of the Cross Country franchise, which runs from Aberdeen to Penzance and cuts across multiple parts of the railway, awarding this franchise in 2019 could impact on the review’s conclusions.

It has therefore been decided that this competition will not proceed. Services will continue to be operated by the existing franchisee with options beyond this to be considered in due course. The department will consider the responses to the Cross Country public consultation in the development of future options for the franchise.

All other ongoing franchise competitions and other live rail projects are continuing as planned.

 
 
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