Blockades to enable railway engineering works are commonplace. Is it surprising that many reach for the car keys at weekends?


Saturday April 16, was a great day for the beleaguered coach industry. The FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Manchester City saw the biggest single movement ever of people by coach to Wembley.

While the efficiency and readiness of the coach industry will doubtless have played a part, and they certainly stepped up to the plate, the real reason was that on the day the top two clubs in England were playing a high profile knock-out game in the country’s top competition, Network Rail’s planned engineering works meant there were no trains to carry fans of either team from the north-west to London. That’s a lot of lost passenger traffic to the railway and an episode that will have done nothing to build confidence in, or loyalty to, rail services.

Nor will the announcement I heard last week over the tannoy at my local station, Lewes, which, I suppose in an attempt to be helpful, breezily stated that “engineering works take place most weekends and on evenings during the week”.

Lewes itself has had two nine-day blockades in recent months, as well as numerous works which have shut the railway on other weekends. You do have to ask why all these works could not be done at the same time.

The use of long blockade periods, when no trains run for days, has been adopted by Network Rail, and in theory is a sensible idea. It should allow a big bang approach when everything from points replacement to the cutting back of lineside vegetation can be done together. It also allows more intensive working and must be more cost effective, and indeed less disruptive, than a continual series of short possessions.

The trouble is that the blockades do not seem to have replaced the short possessions, but merely added to them, or at least that is the perception

The trouble is that the blockades do not seem to have replaced the short possessions, but merely added to them, or at least that is the perception. Long-suffering train users have a right to ask whether all these possessions are really necessary. I do not mean in terms of the work being carried out – we can assume, I hope, that the works identified really do have to be undertaken – but in terms of the time allocated, the methods used, and the efficiency of the works.

We might also ask whether trains are always run when track is available. A couple of years back, exasperated by the sheer number of possessions affecting Lewes, I submitted a Freedom of Information request to Network Rail to establish the works undertaken, and married this against the use of rail replacement buses. What this exercise showed was that often when track was available from Lewes to Haywards Heath, it was decided, presumably by Southern in this case, not to use it, but to bus people all the way from Lewes to Three Bridges. That indeed was also the case with the most recent nine-day blockade where the major work was to replace a junction north of Haywards Heath station. There is no reason, as far as I can see, why a shuttle service could not have run between Lewes and Haywards Heath.

Would it be cynical of me to observe that replacement buses are often owned by the same company that operates the train?

Just who has an incentive to reduce the number and length of possessions? Not Network Rail, who in the main still see themselves as an infrastructure organisation divorced from the passenger. And not the TOCs who get compensation from Network Rail and who can often run their buses as a bonus.

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the operation of engineering works is planned for the convenience of the railway, rather than the convenience of passengers.

To make matters worse, all too often there is a disconnect between the train and the connecting rail replacement bus. The railway regards the replacement buses as not its business, and the bus drivers are even less interested in the train passengers. Apart from anything else, this means that tickets are never checked on the bus, resulting in an unnecessary loss of fare income.

Alex Warner, in a recent edition of Passenger Transport, set out a helpful 10-point plan to make rail replacement less painful. It would be good to see his ideas taken up.

One problem is that the railway suffers from a lack of agility. To mix transport metaphors, it turns like an oil tanker rather than a speedboat. Lines are fixed in the ground, rolling stock lasts for years, union agreements take a long time to negotiate and even longer to change. And engineering works are planned a long time in advance and cannot easily be altered at short notice. The works on the West Coast Main Line on April 16 will have been planned long before we knew that Man City would be playing Liverpool at Wembley in the FA Cup semi-final.

Yet the world does change, sometimes quickly. Covid reduced at its worst point passenger numbers to a trickle. The post-Covid world for the railway looks very different.

Commuter traffic is markedly down, and may well stay that way, as working from home has now become ingrained for many white collar workers who find it more enjoyable, cheaper and perhaps even more productive. It is unlikely that petulant notes left on the desks of civil servants by Jacob Rees-Mogg will do much to change that.

Shutting the railway on a Sunday may have made little difference in 1983. It certainly does now.

By contrast, leisure travel on rail is booming, and in some cases running at levels in excess of where it was pre-Covid. The weekend trains I have been on recently were packed out, and of course it is weekends when engineering works are most common. Shutting the railway on a Sunday may have made little difference in 1983. It certainly does now. The railway needs all the passengers it can get and here is the primary growth market being given the message that it is pot luck if your weekend train is running or not. Is it surprising that many reach for the car keys at weekends without even bothering to check if trains are running?

The use of blockades is indeed one answer, if the planners can make sure that the period of possession is used to maximum effect and not the prelude to weeks of further weekend closures. And in the new world of leisure travel growth, perhaps it is time to consider using different days in the week. What about Mondays, with commuter traffic now concentrated Tuesday to Thursday, and Fridays a day to get away for the weekend?

But the real gain will come from better use of the time taken for a possession. About 10 years ago when I was a minister, there was uproar when engineering works over the Christmas and New Year period, I think from memory affecting Liverpool Street, ran over into the first few days of January.

The instruction went out (and not from me, I hasten to add) that this must not happen again. The result is that works are now given an unnecessarily long buffer period and so finish unnecessarily early. This is not efficient, either in terms of the use of the possession or in terms of the consequent number of extra possessions that have to be taken.

As a minister, I spent a night with the maintenance men (and they were all men) replacing track on the Northern Line somewhere up near Highgate. By the time the power had been switched off and we had walked along to the section of track that needed attention, there was barely two hours’ for the work itself before it was time to reverse the process. The length of track replaced, and this is no reflection on the workforce, was pitifully small.

I would encourage Network Rail to narrow the buffer zone between works ending and the first train running.

I would encourage Network Rail to narrow the buffer zone between works ending and the first train running. It may well be that this means that one or two per cent of works will overrun, but in my view that is a price worth paying if it means more efficient use of time and so reduces the number of possessions required.

Then there is the question of the methods used by those undertaking works to the permanent way. My own observations, which I accept are limited, suggest that the methods used are ones that would be recognisable to Victorian navvies.

Is Network Rail equipped with the most up-to-date equipment to speed up engineering works, and is it being used? Indeed, can it be used on short possessions?

Will any of this change with the arrival of Great British Railways? Well the government’s White Paper, now a year old, boldly stated that GBR would have as its “primary focus” the need to serve passengers. It also, in Chapter 7, promised “better planning of track and infrastructure works”.

It further stated that GBR “will be a new organisation, not just a larger version of Network Rail”.

All fine words in these three sentiments, but fine words alone butter no parsnips, as my great-aunt might have said a long time ago. Let us have a plan to deliver the culture change we need to see in the planning and operation of engineering works.

I want to see the railway grow. The way engineering works are presently delivered is a serious impediment to that objective.

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 story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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