Published: 12th February 2015
Major engineering works which will bring significant benefits to passengers over-ran after Christmas just outside Kings Cross and Paddington. Thousands of passengers were delayed and inconvenienced on December 27 and the next few days as Network Rail (NR) struggled to get the railway back in full operational service.
The Government and Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) demanded answers and the initial report has been published. The report carries an apology from Mark Carne, the NR Chief Executive. He said that they suffered both inconvenience and discomfort and that he wanted to unreservedly apologise to everyone who was affected.
He added; But being sorry is not enough. We have to learn from what happened to ensure that we can further reduce the risk of such incidents in the future. I therefore instructed that there should be a full and speedy investigation into the root causes of the problems. I also committed to making the findings public, which I am now doing.
The biggest investment in railways for a century brings inevitable disruption
and the UK railways are booming in terms of investment and passenger and freight usage. To make sure the network can cope with the extra traffic safely and reliably, improvements have to be made. These can only be done when no trains are running and the new infrastructure has to be proved to be safer before it is signed off back into service.
Over the Christmas period, NR had to organise an extensive programme of engineering works across the UK using about 10,000 people working on 300 different projects across 2,000 work sites. 99% of these projects were delivered safely and on schedule the report says. But this did not help passengers at Finsbury Park who were left standing on a cold platform, or queuing outside waiting for a train.
The report says that on 27 December many passengers on the East Coast main line and the Great Western main line experienced significant delays, some at mainline stations and others diverted to smaller stations and experienced overcrowding, especially at Finsbury Park where two-hour queues formed.
The two sets of disruption were caused by very significant pieces of engineering works at Holloway between Kings Cross and Finsbury Park and at Old Oak Common, west of Paddington station. The train operating companies (TOCs) were notified on Boxing Day, around 14 hours before the planned start of service on December 27 that the overrun affecting King’s Cross station was going to happen but no such warning could be given for the Paddington area work.
The King’s Cross / Holloway Junction work involved replacing two of the junctions and 500m of the two railway lines between them were being replaced between Christmas Day and Monday 29 December 2014. This type of renewal is a relatively routine operation but was a large scheme and 6,000 tonnes of ballast were needed. The two adjacent railway lines were required for use by the engineering trains to support the work carried out by NR and Amey Rail. The overall cost of the work undertaken by the Alliance at Holloway was around £4 million
Things went wrong with the disposal of the old ballast, scrap rails and sleepers because of failed machinery losing six hours Christmas evening. The equipment failures were unexpected because new hardware had been bought specifically to reduce the risk of breakdown. Crucially despite the best intentions, it had not been tested in a railway environment beforehand and proved unreliable when used.
The project believed that two of the four railway lines could be opened on the morning of Saturday 27 December for the planned reduced passenger service because there was still some contingency time available in the plan. But obviously when the railway is removed, you cannot stop because trains still cannot operate. So the work had to be continued.
But safety critical workers such as train drivers and operational staff began to ‘run out of hours’. This means that they are only allowed to work for a set amount of time and the job effectively stopped as drivers and crews reached their maximum shift length limit. The knock-on effect was that the engineering trains were in the wrong place to support the work.
By late morning on December 26, the project was 15 hours behind plan and an overrun was declared. All affected parties were involved in a conference call later that evening and the decision was taken by Network Rail to run as much of the scheduled train service on the 27 December as possible, but for trains to start and terminate north of King’s Cross, mainly at Finsbury Park.
The report says that this decision was made after balancing the disruption that would be caused by running services terminating at Finsbury Park, against the even greater disruption that would probably have been caused by cancelling services altogether or inconveniencing passengers further by directing them to destinations more remote from King’s Cross.
In this decision making, Network Rail was accountable for deciding if it was safe to run trains and for preparing the route plans. They acted on advice given by the Train companies regarding passenger handling and the capacity of their managed stations along with advice from the British Transport Police (BTP) and other stakeholders.
This decision was relayed on Boxing Day evening via all available passenger information channels and the national media who carried the story the next morning. The report says that “There were mutual failings in the communications between NR and Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), who manage Finsbury Park station, around the implementation of the contingency plan.
Failure to operate a revised platform usage pattern, as agreed the previous evening, was a significant contributor to the subsequent overcrowding.
Around 100 local trains had used Finsbury Park with little incident by 1000am when the first long distance train arrived. By about 1030am it became clear that things were getting difficult with crowded platforms with passengers on incoming trains unable to alight. At 11am, station operators, GTR closed the station for about 30 minutes due to overcrowding and the safety risk to passengers -supported by the BTP.
Several hundred passengers then had to queue outside the station for up to three hours and by 2pm the crowd were organised and being managed and three hours later, the queues had largely disappeared.
Trains were crowded and many had to stand for a long time and distance. Passenger services using King’s Cross resumed on 28 December on two railway lines and all four lines were opened, as originally planned, for services on Monday 29 December.
The Great West main line is being electrified and Crossrail is also using some of the existing tracks so there are two huge projects underway taking in the same tracks between Paddington and Reading.
The work included the introduction of a brand new 1,750m long flyover and junction to enhance connections to Heathrow Airport; and major track layout, overhead line and signalling changes at Old Oak Common depot to allow this complex depot to be used by new trains – this was the item which overran on 27 December.
Signalling testing for Old Oak Common and the main lines was reported as complete at 03:30 on Saturday 27 December by Signalling Solutions Limited (SSL), who are one of Network Rail’s appointed signalling framework suppliers. Thus the project appeared to be on time to open the railway as planned at 7am but as it transpired, this reporting was inaccurate.
SSL would use the time between 330am and 6am to complete their final paperwork checks and testing verifications. This activity is routinely planned to last one to two hours as the testing paperwork is maintained and updated constantly throughout a major signalling commissioning.
It emerged that the amount of work that needed to be done at this stage was greater than they expected because of the combination of physical testing work needing to be redone or rechecked with inconsistencies in the paperwork needing to be resolved. Additional site checks/tests on the Main Lines were required to be undertaken prior to the Safety Certification being issued. Safety at all times is paramount in these matters.
At 630am the safety certificates had not been presented and dialogue between the NR and SSL Project Teams continued to be very regular (every 15-20 minutes) but, despite this, SSL were unable to confirm when the Safety Certification for the main lines would be issued.
At 830am, the NR Project Team stopped the SSL Tester In Charge and requested a candid view of the issues and confirmation of what the revised timescales would be. The Tester In Charge stated that the document for Old Oak Common would be issued at 1115am and everyone planned around this.
The documentation was finally issued at 1314hrs allowing trains to operate.
Trains were delayed or cancelled and some passengers travelled by other routes to reach Reading and onward connections. Disruption continued throughout the day and trains were overcrowded and more delays happened on 28 December because trains and staff were then not in the correct locations to deliver the planned services.
Passengers who used the Waterloo to Reading route shared trains with rugby fans going to Twickenham, exacerbating travelling conditions while passengers between Oxford and London were diverted via Banbury and to and from Marylebone.
The disruption was not caused by construction works which were completed in time to allow trains to run from 7am but the NR appointed signalling contractor took nearly ten hours to complete the planned two hour safety validation, testing and sign-off of the new signalling system.
NR will improve the effectiveness of their project and operational contingency plans so that minimising passenger disruption is at the very heart of their planning. NR also pledged to improve management of the performance of critical contractors and, in the case of one specific contractor, do a better job of working with them to improve their signalling commissioning process.