Stephen Glaister’s inquiry into the timetable fiasco at Northern and Thameslink must be genuine, with nothing off limits

 

In a move I have never seen before, 25 newspaper titles in the north have come together to demand the government “get a grip”

 

Back in 1985, following a short spell with British Rail, I thought I would try my hand at comedy writing and submitted to the BBC a pilot episode of a TV sitcom about the railways called Crossed Lines. The BBC replied that while they liked the characters I had created, the chaos and incompetence I had portrayed was too far-fetched and lacked credibility. I wondered this week if I ought to dig out that script and resubmit it.

I could certainly have found a place in my script for the contribution from David Brown, managing director of Northern Rail, who volunteered that entirely shutting the Lakes line between Oxenholme and Windermere was the company responding positively to “stakeholders”.

Or from the transport secretary Chris Grayling who told the Commons this week that it was “completely unacceptable to have someone operationally in control and not taking responsibility”. Indeed.

That morning he had cancelled at short notice a meeting with MPs whose constituencies have been affected by the chaos on the railways. Perhaps he had his own emergency timetable.

 I confess that my sympathy for the secretary of state ebbed away as I listened to him flailing around, blaming Network Rail, blaming the train companies, but not in any way blaming himself or the Department for Transport

It is not easy to have to face ranks of incandescent MPs from the despatch box, especially when many are on your own side, but I confess that my sympathy for the secretary of state ebbed away as I listened to him flailing around, blaming Network Rail, blaming the train companies, but not in any way blaming himself or the Department for Transport. You would think they were innocent bystanders. His statement in essence could be summed up in three words: not me, guv.

And so we have an independent inquiry under Professor Stephen Glaister, the chair of the Office of Rail and Road, which will buy the secretary of state some breathing space. In the meantime, the prime minister has expressed her “full confidence” in him, a phrase which in the past has often been shown to be a prelude to a “resignation”, as in the phrase “he has been resigned”.

Actually, an inquiry is no bad thing, provided Stephen Glaister is allowed free rein and able to look into the DfT’s role in this fiasco as well as that of Network Rail and the TOCs. It has to have courage to do so properly and thoroughly. This has to be a genuine inquiry with nothing off limits.

Here are 10 questions that need to be answered:

  1. Why, given the enormously long lead-in period, was the industry not ready on the due date to introduce the new timetable seamlessly?
  2. Why on day one was there such an acute shortage of drivers trained for the routes and rolling stock they were needed to operate?
  3. Why were Network Rail so late in finalising the May timetable and supplying diagrams to the Train Operating Companies?
  4. Why, as it was clear that the industry was not going to be ready on the due date, was the introduction of the new timetable not postponed until it was ready?
  5. Is it true, as Chris Grayling suggests, that Govia Thameslink, three weeks before, assured him that they would be ready on day one?
  6. Is it true, as The Guardian suggests, that the DfT signed off the new timetable and insisted on implementation on the due date, rather than countenance a delay?
  7. Who is responsible for an emergency timetable on Northern that saw huge numbers of cancelled trains on its first day of operation?
  8. Why are Network Rail so far behind with their line electrification, a factor the train companies cite for the need to rewrite timetables at the eleventh hour?
  9. What role was played by the industry group, the Thameslink Readiness Board? Were they unsighted, or did they issue warnings that were ignored?
  10. What did the secretary of state, and rail minister Jo Johnson, know and when?

It is difficult to underplay the extent of the chaos, and indeed the anger of passengers. The situation has been worst in the Northern franchise area, which has seen hundreds of cancellations, as well as short formations and late running.

In order to try to stabilise the situation after two weeks of chaos, the company chopped out 165 daily services, but that still did not prevent over 60 trains being cancelled before 8.30am on the first morning of the emergency timetable. Passengers on the Lakes line have been told they will have no trains for at least two weeks.

In a move I have never seen before, 25 newspaper titles in the north have come together to demand the government “get a grip”, and that Chris Grayling “should take accountability”. Predictably, the headline on many was “Off The Rails”.

One option, even if a nuclear one, is to revert to the previous timetable until there can be certainty that the new one will work. After all, until May, that timetable was operating a bit more predictably, even allowing for a slew of cancellations. To revert to this is not without complications of course, but for Northern, who seem incapable of making even an emergency timetable work, it should be seriously considered.

Passengers on Northern will receive compensation, the Commons was told. Judging by past practice, that is likely to mean season ticket holders, who are merely a sub-group of passengers, but are those that can be readily identified. Of course far greater numbers have suffered, not to mention many businesses dependant on the train services.

A fairer way, when everything has finally settled down, whenever that is, would be to cut fares for a period of say three months, and to market that offer, particularly for tourist spots such as those on the Lakes line. Andy Burnham, the mayor of Manchester, has made the point that Northern is bizarrely likely to benefit financially from the operation of a reduced timetable. It will therefore have cash it did not expect to have and which could be used to fund this.

One consequence of the shambles of the last three weeks has been to divert attention away from some of the legitimate questions that were beginning to be asked about the desirability of some of the changes in the new timetable

One consequence of the shambles of the last three weeks has been to divert attention away from some of the legitimate questions that were beginning to be asked about the desirability of some of the changes in the new timetable, even assuming it can be made to work.

While the central objectives – to introduce more capacity on the network, better use of trains, and new through services such as Cambridge to Brighton – are entirely sensible, there are a number of worrying aspects that ought to be reconsidered, perhaps for the December timetable.

For example, it is perplexing that while GTR piles yet more Southern and Thameslink trains into Brighton, they have not taken the opportunity to end the cumbersome train-splitting at Haywards Heath that is required throughout the off-peak for trains running to Littlehampton in the west, and Eastbourne/Hastings in the east. This unnecessarily adds around seven minutes to each journey. Yet my casual observations suggest that the average loading on these coastway east and west trains is on average significantly higher than on Brighton trains, particularly the extended Gatwick Express services which often run nearly empty. Surely a minor reallocation of train paths makes sense here.

And train splitting has actually been increased at Horsham, adding to journey times. These have in fact been lengthened in many cases, we are told in order to build resilience into the timetable. While this may be required in places, there is inevitably a suspicion that the extended times are more about meeting performance targets than meeting operational requirements. Call me cynical, but I did wonder the other day how it was possible for the train I boarded at Lewes for London to manage to arrive over three minutes ahead of its scheduled departure time, having only come from Eastbourne, 15 miles away.

There are also stations that have lost a good many services, or where fast trains have been replaced by stopping trains, adding greatly to journey times. There are connections that have been lost, such as between Glynde and Berwick in my local area.

While there are bound to be winners and losers in any exercise of this complexity, one positive that can come out of the last three weeks is the opportunity presented for a review of the timetable not just to assess the robustness and deliverability of that which was introduced, but also to consider the concerns that have been raised about specific and localised consequences of the changes. That opportunity should be taken.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Chris Grayling is assessing whether the train companies in the firing line, Govia Thameslink and Arriva Rail North (Northern), are in breach of their contractural obligations, presumably an exercise to be run in parallel with that being conducted by Stephen Glaister.

The secretary of state is also warning that these companies could be banned for bidding for future franchises if they are found to be at fault for the present mess. What he did not say, of course, was what sanction would apply to him and his department if they were found to be at fault.

 

About the author:

Norman Baker served as transport minister from May 2010 until October 2013. He was Lib Dem MP for Lewes between 1997 and 2015.

 

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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