TRANSPORT secretary Chris Grayling has announced a full scale inquiry into the causes of poor performance on Govia Thameslink and Northern since the timetable changes on 20 May.
He has spoken of his ‘incredible frustration’ and also warned that he could take action for breaches of franchise contracts, but he has highlighted Network Rail infrastructure delays as one of the main causes of the problems.
The new timetables, which should have ushered in more frequent trains serving more destinations, have proved to be unworkable. As a result, both operators shaved hundreds of services from their timetables yesterday for the time being in a bid to make their schedules more reliable.
So far, there has been some improvement, but many trains are still not turning up or arriving more than 30 minutes late.
Figures from the Rail Delivery Group show that the percentage of trains in this category has fallen from 11 per cent to 7 per cent on Northern, and from 13 per cent to 8 per cent on Govia Thameslink routes, which include Southern, Great Northern and Gatwick Express.
Mr Grayling told the House of Commons that “early analysis shows that the key issue was that Network Rail did not deliver infrastructure upgrades in time – in particular the Bolton electrification scheme – with damaging consequences. This forced plans to be changed at a very late stage – requiring a complete overhaul of logistics and crew planning.”
Meanwhile, on GTR Thameslink and Great Northern, “the industry timetable developed by Network Rail was very late to be finalised. This meant that train operators didn’t have enough time to plan crew schedules or complete crew training, affecting a whole range of other complex issues”.
He continued: “But it is also clear to me that both Northern and GTR were not sufficiently prepared to manage a timetable change of this scale either. GTR did not have enough drivers with the route knowledge required to operate the new timetable. And neither Northern nor GTR had a clear fall-back plan.”
Northern has agreed an action plan with the Rail North Partnership, focused on improving driver rostering to get more trains running as quickly as possible, rapidly increasing driver training on new routes, additional contingency drivers and managers on duty at key locations in Manchester.
On GTR, Mr Grayling said, “there are more services running on a day-to-day basis today than before the timetable change, and Southern and Gatwick Express services are performing well on some routes but not all. However, GTR are not currently able to deliver all planned services on Thameslink and Great Northern routes.”
Mr Grayling says he understands passengers’ anger, and has increased levels of compensation.
He has also fired a warning shot across the bows of the operators, saying “if it is found that GTR are materially in breach of their contractual obligations, I will take the appropriate enforcement action against them. This includes using the full force of the franchise agreement and my powers under the Railways Act, and I will include how such a failure impacts on their eligibility to hold a franchise bidding passport.
“In the case of Northern, my department will assess the operator’s planning, risk assessment and resilience in preparing for the May timetable change. Bearing in mind Network Rail’s failure to deliver infrastructure on time, we will absolutely hold the operator to the terms of their contractual obligations. I will not be afraid to take action where it is necessary to do so.”
Rail Delivery Group CEO Paul Plummer has agreed with Mr Grayling, saying: “We fully support the Government’s inquiry which must take an open and comprehensive look at every aspect of the decision-making process and the organisations involved in the timetable change. The industry will play its part to ensure lessons are learned but right now Network Rail, Northern and GTR are working together, with support from the rest of the industry, to get services back to an acceptable level.”
Transport Focus chief executive Anthony Smith added: “Unprecedented delays, confusion and cancellations have made life miserable in recent weeks for some Northern, Thameslink and Great Northern passengers. The promise of special compensation above and beyond the usual is welcome. But passengers’ first priority is to get services running so that they can plan their lives with some certainty.”
RMT general secretary Mick Cash has called for Mr Grayling to meet the front line staff affected. Mr Cash said: “The total chaos unleashed by Chris Grayling on our railways has left staff at the sharp end abandoned to their fate by his private train operators. I am challenging the transport secretary to come and meet some of the men and women bearing the brunt of the backlash against the timetable changes his department signed off.
“RMT members across the north and the south are being hung out to dry as human shields for a failed Tory privatisation dogma. That is a disgrace and Chris Grayling should have the guts to get out of his bunker and come and talk to them.”