Published: 30th December 2014
The railways hit the national news headlines from December 27th for all the wrong reasons as engineering work went wrong. Christmas is well known for being an opportunity for Network Rail to replace bridges, points or signalling as they can have 52 hours on some sections of line without trains.
This Christmas was no exception with Thameslink upgrade works (as opposed to normal maintenance works) planned for the East Coast Main Line (ECML) under a mile from Kings Cross. There were also major works underway on the Great Western Main Line between Paddington and Reading as part of that line’s electrification and the Crossrail project. The effect of this was that only the Midland Main Line from St. Pancras was available for passengers to or from the north.
The railways are undergoing a massive investment, probably the largest for at least a century and while carrying more and more passengers being the busiest for at least 75 years. The Christmas period is chosen for disruptive works as the Industry says that ‘only’ two million people a day travel by rail as opposed to over double this on a normal day.
Network Rail (NR) announced at around 5pm on Boxing Day that they would not be completing the works, between Gasworks Tunnel and Copenhagen Tunnel under a mile out of Kings Cross, on time and that services would be disrupted on December 27.
The works were to install overhead wires on the new Thameslink connection between the East Coast Main Line and the Canal Tunnel link to the existing Thameslink line under St Pancras.
This will allow direct trains to operate between Peterborough and Kings Lynn through London to the south coast from 2018 when the Thameslink project reaches completion.
There were claims from the media and some politicians that the work was not planned well enough. Rail.co.uk’s editor was interviewed a couple of times on BBC national radio to explain what was behind the story.
In essence this was that the Thameslink project has been underway for about 20 years so far but has been stymied by political interference until five years ago. A project this size has to overcome a massive amount of legislation and planning. This year’s Christmas work will have been in the planning pipeline for at least three years and the detail known for the last year, or should have been.
Many radio voxpops suggested that the December 27 train service was a disaster, but was it this or a major inconvenience? In 2018 when the same passengers benefit from new trains and new services, how many will remember the 48 hours of inconvenience? Surely a disaster is when there is a fatal accident such as the air and ferry accidents in the days after Christmas?
NR decided that Finsbury Park would be able to deputise for Kings Cross on December 27 and whoever took that decision was clearly not experienced enough or was incorrectly briefed. Despite being provided with two extra platforms a 12 months ago, there was no realistic way the station could cope with the combination of the long distance trains and passengers with their luggage.
Not only was it the wrong choice, but yet again communications by the rail industry to passengers (their customers remember) were abysmal. This reflected one of the consistently low scoring areas in the Office of The Rail Regulator’s monitoring of the industry.
Given the length of the queues at Finsbury Park one has to wonder why there were so few railway staff with loudhailers or hand written notices for passengers. Given the notice available after deciding trains would be disrupted, why were no extra staff brought in to deal with the crowds? Why were some of the Kings Cross staff not re-deployed from Kings Cross to Finsbury Park?
Finsbury Park is normally a busy interchange station for commuters with the Victoria and Piccadilly Lines on the London Underground. It was not equipped for and never intended as a station to serve long-distance passengers with luggage. The station was eventually closed at 11am due to overcrowding on neighbouring streets but there were claims that trains left with many empty seats.
There has been no real attempt at an explanation as to what went wrong by NR. If it was a plant or machinery failure the question has to be was it tested beforehand, was it delivered and available on time and was an on-site engineer or technician booked to be there in case of failure?
Network performance has dropped in recent months these latest difficulties will further hit the Moving Annual Average punctuality statistics which could trigger fines imposed by the Rail Regulator.
NR will already have to pay millions in compensation to East Coast Trains, (ECT) Great Northern (GN) and others affected by the disruption. These payments are designed to cover the train operators’ costs such extra staff, taxis or buses and include refunds to passengers.
Given ECT and NR are Government owned, this means that one department will pay another one at what cost? And who will Sir Humphrey chastise for the lack of staff at Finsbury Park and the rest of the chaos? Politicians on all sides have played the blame game in the quest for votes but claim the credit when it goes right but blame everybody else when it goes wrong.
The Rail Regulator will, as ever, carry out a thorough investigation which will allow everyone to understand what went wrong and why it happened. It should also look at what contingency plans were made such as ‘recovery time’ in the 60 hour limit for the works.
The Regulator could levy a fine on NR which takes more money from the rail industry. The last one that could have been levied, because of poor network punctuality, ironically resulted in an agreement for NR over £50 million being invested in better web based communications rather than a fine.
The mantra was that the information was on the internet but passengers do not always have mobile internet access, despite what we are led to believe which is not a bad thing as the various websites offering information about the Kings Cross works have ranged from good (ECT) to poor (NR) to abysmal (GN).
Passengers require succinct information and only East Coast Trains managed this to a decent level while information displayed on the Thameslink website was just misleading as well as incorrect.
Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said "The situation on the railways this weekend has been totally unacceptable. Passengers must be able to trust that vital engineering works on the rail network will be completed on time," "I will be asking Network Rail to set out what went wrong and how they can learn lessons, but its priority must be to get services running into Kings Cross as well as Paddington."
Network Rail Chief Executive Mark Carne has now declined his bonus, but will the rest of NR’s staff do the same? He said: I’m accountable and performance is unacceptable. I took the job 10 months ago knowing that there were real challenges and so there are.
Today's planned Sunday timetable for services into and out of King's Cross will run. Robin Gisby, managing director, network operations, Network Rail, said: "King's Cross has reopened this morning following completion of yesterday's late running work. I would like to sincerely apologise for the upset and upheaval passengers suffered yesterday as our engineers struggled to complete an essential improvement project that had been months in planning.
"The advertised Sunday timetable for King's Cross will run today as train operators work to get people home who we're unable to travel yesterday.
"We now move our focus to completing the handful of other projects still underway without further impact on passengers. We will also begin our investigation into what went wrong with the work at Holloway (north of King's Cross) and the planning that went into this project."
• Unfortunately the delays continued on December 28 with a signalling fault outside Kings Cross delaying trains by 40 minutes.
Before the works started it was announced that First Hull Trains will run two trains in each direction each day to and from London St Pancras International instead of London Kings Cross and Great Northern are diverting some trains to and from Moorgate between 08:30 and 19:30. There was no mention of this during the ensuing chaos.
Train operators accepted any tickets irrespective of restrictions and allowed travel on the following two days. Even Abellio Greater Anglia carried GN passengers to help out. The majority of their services were suspended and replacement buses ran between Letchworth and Luton to connect with Thameslink services to London St Pancras.
It was announced that Stagecoach owned Midland Main Line would not accept any other train operators’ tickets which ruled out the only northbound train services from or to London on December 27. Whether they now regret this with hindsight can only be imagined.
Go west instead?
The Great Western Main Line also suffered on December 27 with signalling problems causing serious delays between Paddington, Heathrow and Reading. This time Stagecoach did allow other ticket holders onto their Southwest Trains’ services though as did Cross Country and Chiltern Railways.