Rail passengers let down by industry failures… ORR concludes

Northern 150140 at Nelson railway station
Northern 150140 at Nelson

The Office of Rail and Road has published its report into what caused the May 2018 timetable disruption.

The inquiry found that Network Rail, Govia Thameslink Railway, Northern, the Department for Transport, and the Office of Rail and Road all made mistakes. All of which contributed to the collapse of services, particularly on the GTR and Northern routes.

On the 20th May 2018, the industry attempted to introduce the biggest timetable change in a generation. The £1bn+ 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.

The Inquiry found problems caused by delays in completing the North West Electrification Programme were worsened by Network Rail, who believed they could make up the time.

They also found that the Department for Transport’s decision to agree to phase the introduction of Thameslink stretched resources at Network Rail.

This Inquiry also determined that  the industry placed engineering and planning concerns before its passengers.

A key issue, found by the Inquiry, is that there is a 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.

What did the officials say?

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.”

Northern released a statement saying:

Northern is deeply sorry for the unacceptable disruption caused to our customers in the north west of England following the introduction of the new timetable on Sunday 20 May 2018. We apologise unreservedly to our customers who did not receive the service they deserve in affected areas.

Our team worked hard to stabilise services by putting in place an interim timetable on some routes in North-West England from 4 June 2018, withdrawing 165 of our 2,800 daily services on a temporary basis to provide more certainty to customers. We have reinstated 151 of those 165 services. Punctuality has also steadily improved, with 87% of services arriving on schedule over the first two weeks of September 2018.

Customers holding season tickets are receiving compensation for the disruption they experienced under a special scheme – and last week the Department for Transport announced that the Delay Repay compensation scheme would be improved from December.

Northern accepts that many customers had insufficient information about disruption following the introduction of the May timetable and is committed to significantly improving information for customers. This includes investing over £5 million on new information screens and public address systems at stations to improve the provision of information for customers.

The ORR Report has confirmed that the root cause of the timetable disruption was delays to engineering projects to improve the railway. Normally, train operators are given 40 weeks to plan the twice-yearly introduction of a new timetable. However, due to delayed engineering projects in North-West England, Northern had to entirely re-write its May 2018 timetable in just 16 weeks.

Northern will now consider in detail the findings in the ORR Report. We want to learn the lessons of the May timetable disruption and will be working closely with other organisations across the rail industry to ensure new timetabling is implemented as effectively as possible for customers in the future.

Barry White, Chief Executive of Transport for the North, said:

“The interim findings of this Glaister Review clearly highlight that there is a real need for radical change in the way the rail industry operates. Fundamentally, as our members have said from the outset, changes are needed so we can be sure passengers’ interests are put front and centre of every decision made.”

He added: “The Report’s summary highlights the Rail Delivery Group’s statement that ‘the timetable is our promise to passengers’. This summer, in the North of England, and elsewhere, that promise was broken. That is unacceptable. It was passengers who suffered and that must not be allowed to happen again.”

“That appointment, and the compensation packages, are first steps on a long journey of rail reform. The findings of this Report when it is concluded, informed by the findings of our own Review now underway through the Rail North Partnership, will help further ensure that passengers’ voices are heard.”

“Throughout this Summer we have worked tirelessly to ensure the train operating companies stabilise services in the North and with some success – and we will continue to do so. What passengers need above all is a reliable train service, one they can depend on – and that’s where our immediate focus has been.”

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