Published: 12th August 2015
The Office of Rail and Road (ORR) has fined Network Rail (NR) £2million for a Licence Breach concerning poor timetable planning. Sounds a lot but the reality I that the fine represents under five hours of the Government subsidy as the company receives around £10million a day, every day in Government subsidy.
ORR has cited no systemic weaknesses, but noted that previous errors by NR so far as timetabling and a lack of liaison with operators and not planning ahead for passengers are concerned have been repeated. Rail.co.uk looks at some of the possible reasons for the planning failure.
Network Rail moved their HQ to Milton Keynes a couple of years ago and over 3000 jobs are now based there, including the train planning teams. Staff were relocated from London and regional offices and those that could not, or were unwilling to relocate left the company. This has brought a jobs boom in Milton Keynes with maybe 1500 people without railway experience securing employment with Network Rail.
This relocation has been made worse by pension legislation so far as the lifetime allowance is concerned. Many career railway staff will have reached the lifetime allowance cap and they are deciding to leave as there is no financial incentive to carry on working. By definition, they are the people who have worked over 30 years and have a lot of experience to draw on.
Running a railway is a highly complicated process and depends on a myriad of interactions working correctly. And with safety the top priority, there can be no errors. Staff recruited into the rail industry have to learn fast and as for example with a football team that signs four or five new players in one go, it takes time for the new people to understand how to go about their job and where they fit in with the organisation and the Industry as a whole.
ORR has said that the timetable planning process has failed their customers, the train operators, but how much is NR’s fault? Timetables are planned two or more years ahead and are finalised 40 weeks before they start or in other words, next year’s May timetable change will have been, or should have been signed off now.
This is where the lack of experience shows as there will be a time lag from recruiting planners to them learning and delivering robust timetables. But NR is not helped by the Government interfering with them by changing targets and plans to suit political aims. For example, the Midland Main Line electrification was ‘paused’ last month but railway managers were told about this last year, well before the election but not allowed to tell anyone.
The ORR investigation found that Network Rail did not do everything reasonably practicable to deliver the reliability and punctuality needed to support the train services provided by Southern, GTR (across London) and in Scotland so far as there were various issues in Network Rail’s development and implementation of timetables in 2014-15. These issues such as missing punctuality targets and many train cancellations have led ORR to conclude that Network Rail was in breach of its licence.
ORR’s analysis of the timetables showed that for Southern and GTR there were serious weaknesses in the data behind the new timetables with a number of incorrect timetable modelling assumptions made being based on flawed data.
What is interesting is that Network Rail has recognised this and all their planning teams have been trained by volunteers on an intensive rail operations experience day at the Chinnor & Princes Risborough Railway and the next one is on Wednesday this week. All participants rate the day highly and as they say, shows what has to happen at ground level to make trains run and this understanding helps them to plan timetables that will work.
Network Rail has suffered from Government meddling – especially in the last 12 months when they officially became a Government Department due to European Legislation. At the time, the Government said the move was merely an accounting procedural change but in the July budget, it emerged that Network Rail now dance to the Treasury’s tune. This is precisely the same financial mechanism as British Rail had to adhere to.
The company has variously been controlled from the central HQ and has had phases of having power devolved to regional managers. Each time the decision is made to change things, staff change, decision making is affected and projects get delayed. Managers have difficulty in making or taking a decision and combined with not talking to other departments brings delays to projects.
But locally, staff are excellent as they meet customers and do their absolute best to keep the job going but if they are stymied by managerial decisions and policy then they are powerless to assist.
The ORR is now the only independent and unbiased Regulator of Network Rail and they do a very good and crucially, unbiased job. The government announced a review of how Network Rail should be funded and run in the July budget and ORR is also carrying out a similar exercise so it will be interesting to see who prevails.
Network Rail significantly underestimated the impact of the Thameslink upgrade programme on performance, exacerbated by a timetable that was not robust. These resulted in very severe disruptions and frustrations for passengers using London Bridge and NR failed to engage adequately with the train operators to understand what impact the new timetables would have on their passengers and services.
In Scotland, there were numerous errors in the December 2014 timetable caused by a number of factors including a lack of quality assurance and detailed planning.
ORR has identified some factors outside NR's control which hindered good target-meeting performance in 2014-15. These are Traincrew issues that Southern and GTR have suffered bringing a significant increase in delays from lack of staff. In Scotland, the Glasgow Commonwealth Games traffic was estimated to cause a dip of 0.6percentage points in overall punctuality as NR and ScotRail acted pragmatically to ensure the successful movement of passengers rather than prioritising performance.
ORR also considered that NR was not wholly responsible for the delay minutes and subsequent punctuality loss caused by fatalities and trespass events, and that it has worked constructively to reduce these incidents and mitigate their impact in Scotland, Southern and GTR in 2014-15.
Phil Hufton, managing director of network operations at Network Rail, said: “At the start of this year we had a number of problems that caused passengers disruption and frustration and we apologise for this. Since then we have proactively invested over £11m to improve performance for Southern and Thameslink passengers.
"This investment, which has seen the introduction of a revised timetable, improved equipment, the deployment of rapid-response maintenance teams at London Bridge as well as new information screens and better passenger information, is paying dividends and passenger service reliability has now improved by almost 12% since January.
“While the nuts and bolts of our infrastructure are the most reliable they’ve even been, severe congestion caused by record numbers of trains and passengers makes delivering a consistently reliable service a daily challenge for ourselves and the train operators. At London Bridge we are undertaking the biggest and most complex station and track redevelopment ever attempted on Britain’s railways – while simultaneously continuing to keep services running."
“As we are now a public sector organisation, the fine must come from within our existing budget and will mean a reallocation of existing resources to pay it.”
History has repeated itself so far as the current railway travails are concerned. 60 years ago the 1955 Modernisation Plan was introduced to drag the railways into a new golden era with record investment. Within two years it had been altered by the Government and the plan was moderated and because of this, it failed. Two years ago, the Government announced a £38billion upgrade and a new Golden Age, now it is in tatters due to political interference.