‘Something better change’

28 June 2018

The pop song by the Stranglers probably sums up the feelings of rail passengers caught in the timetable chaos of the past few weeks and the country generally. We can’t carry on like this – but what to do? Endless reviews into the minutia of problems won’t help – someone needs to step back and take a long, hard look at the railway ‘system’.

The crisis incubates

Like all crises the current timetable one has been gestating for months, if not years – we were talking about this issue as far back as 2004. We picked up timetabling issues in 2013 and 2014, but more recently more severe problems emerged.

Back in 2017 Transport Focus alerted the rail industry, governments and the media to difficulties around the 12-week advance publication of timetables (the so-called ‘T-12’ process) – this allows passengers to plan and book tickets. The amount of improvement works (following very welcome investment) meant, in some cases, timetables were being agreed at very short notice.

Clearly there were significant problems behind the scenes. We were promised a temporary six-week target for timetable publication until December 2018 when we would be back to normal.

At a public meeting of our Board earlier this year the Rail Delivery Group and Network Rail assured us that normal advanced information would be restored by Christmas. They also assured us that the timetable change on May 20 would be OK, with some teething problems.

The storm breaks

As you all know, the timetable change began to unravel mainly on the Northern, Thameslink and Great Northern networks.

Northern removed 165 services, including suspending the Lakes Line, and saw services stabilise. We heard about this in detail at our Manchester public Board meeting on 19 June.

Thameslink and Great Northern, which between them carry a huge number of passengers, have yet to stabilise. Short-notice cancellations, poor performance and patchy information are the side effects of a system out of kilter. An interim timetable will be put in place in July. Who knows when we passengers will see the full, promised, timetable that we’ve been paying for in advance for years.

Oddly, in a slightly parallel universe, the rest of the network has been running OK. The large-scale Southern and Gatwick Express timetable changes went well. Many passengers will have noticed nothing. However, those affected have noticed a lot.

Back to the good old ‘normal’ issues

Now the crisis has abated in the north and steps are being taken, at last, to do the same in the south, it seems odd to think we are getting back to where we were on May 19. In other words, an industry that is still have difficulty publishing some timetables more than six weeks in advance. These ongoing problems continue to have a sapping effect on passengers all around the country.

At the weekend I was talking to someone who organises tours where guests often want to travel by train. He can’t sell tours if he can’t find out well in advance if trains will be running. So, he hires some coaches, goes through real hassle having to take temporary booking until timings are confirmed and, worst of all, has had to cancel some tours.

A passenger travelled from Peterborough to Ipswich on Sunday morning. He had an epic journey because the first train was so late.  It involved two replacement buses – while on one of them, he could actually see the supposedly-cancelled train running!  People were ringing their employers from the coach and at stations saying they would be late – this is having real impact on people’s lives

The railway ‘engine’

An acquaintance asked me ‘what’s behind this timetable problem?’ It’s tempting to say ‘how long have you got’!

The railway is, like many other systems, a machine with many cogs. For a train to appear at a platform ready to pick up passengers all those cogs need to mesh – trains, rail companies, staff, governments, unions, information, signals, power and track. The timetable is the overall plan.

Changing the timetable means the cogs need resetting. Some change size and some change speed. In other words, it’s a complex task. A big timetable change needs very long timescales. Once planned, is very difficult to change.

With timetable changes there is no Plan B. You simply cannot stop and start again. Northern’s timetable changes affected at least 12 other train operators as well as freight companies. The plan has to work on the day or chaos results.

Who is in charge? Who takes responsibility?

This question has arisen hundreds of times in recent weeks. The answer is everyone and no-one. The rail industry, governments, staff and unions all bear some responsibility but no single person is totally at fault.

While welcome investment is being made all over the country, there is an enduring feeling that no-one is in overall charge. Passengers tell us they want a clear sense of who is in charge of their service. Has the time come again to put one person clearly in charge of the whole system? They wouldn’t have to own or run every cog in that system, but would provide the much-needed overview to make sure the cogs mesh in future. Otherwise, fares will continue to rise and passengers will make other transport choices.

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