Normally the principal timetable change time is the May timetable. The December timetable is far less extensive, confined to minor corrections, seasonal variations and sometimes, to incorporate infrastructure changes, such as Crossrail from December 2018. This December timetable change would have been different as a significant element would have been catch up for changes only partially implemented on Northern and Thameslink in May.

So what went wrong and who is to blame for the May 2018 timetable fiasco on Northern and Thameslink?

The blame culture has become a national blood sport, and who is to blame depends on your position if employed in the industry or politics with the guilty parties ranging from the government (very popular choice), Network Rail, the Train Operators (second most popular choice), the railway trade unions and privatisation.

Just like the plot of Murder on the Orient Express they all could have done it.

The key test is proportionality. Let us just look at one example - non completion of Manchester to Preston electrification. Network Rail, for the supplier problems we all know about, are certainly culpable in not delivering this scheme. They are not however responsible for the total timetable chaos as a result of this. The reason for saying this is that the chaos on Northern is way out of proportion to this initial problem and indeed, others such as a shortage of rolling stock.

If we do this test with all the players on both Northern and Thameslink we find that a similar situation whereby each player may have committed a speeding offence, some more serious than others, but didn’t do the murder.

The Railfuture view, just as with the plot of Murder on the Orient Express, is that they all did it.

There are two underlying reasons why the situation is way out of proportion to the individual component problems: Industry leadership and industry structure including process.

We will see endless inquiries pinning blame on whoever the author likes least, but no matter how we look at it no one cause is big enough in itself to promote such chaos. Ironically you could say that such a fiasco needed really concentrated organisation!

Industry leadership

Delivery of any product needs a strong informed client focused on delivery not just of the physical elements but on the service being produced for the customer. All the components of delivery should be focused on this. Can the DfT be viewed as an informed client here? Just forcing increasingly panicky players to meet a timetable change date is not leadership.

Where was the Rail Delivery Group? Did the RDG see this coming and if so did it provide the right challenge to the DfT. Well evidently not or it was ignored. This begs the question whether the RDG is fit for purpose.

Industry Structure

To deliver a service, as apart from an engineering project, requires a systems integrator, a role which Network Rail needs to adopt as a mainstream activity. This entails ensuring that all the relevant components are in place before going ahead. This is different from just putting the timetable into the database.

To achieve this requires a more timely and carefully controlled, dare I say disciplined, staged timetable implementation process with clear milestones at T-40 T-24, T-12 for example. This should be the production line to delivery of the promise to the customer and should be managed as such. Network Rail has done this for physical projects with the GRIP process (for all its faults and cost implications.)

Even if the leadership issue is fixed, which it must be, we still have a major problem. The British rail industry is simply not agile enough to react to major change and to quickly adjust for the need to react to supply side disruption whether it is infrastructure project problems, control/systems issues or rolling stock delivery. It needs to be, if it is to grow. Many supply industries have addressed this and the rail industry can learn from them. They call it the agile supply chain.

A key component of the supply chain is the number of drivers to cover the diagrams. The calculation of how many people are needed is not difficult, even including spare cover. The industry does need to address succession including recruitment and training procedures allowing proper time to recruit and train people for these skilled positions. These are all industry issues.

Where does this lead us?

Network Rail, in the last year, has delivered the largest investment programme since the Railway Mania. Railfuture wants to see a bigger, better railway. The dilemma is that the railway cannot be better unless it is bigger so addressing the capacity issues that were the basis for such a large investment programme. We have a temporary partial respite as passenger journeys have dipped recently but this is likely to be short term if the industry gets its act together.

What happens in December 2018?

General planned changes on routes where the operation is stable will go ahead as normal where these are not structurally significant, potentially disrupting other operators. This allows 14 operators listed below to make useful, if modest, improvement.

The billed December ‘cut backs’ do not represent a reduction in service but do put back further service aspirations of the remaining 8 operators until May 2019.

On Northern and Thameslink the intention is to use the timetable planned for May 2018. This actually represents an increase in service on both these routes from the current position where interim timetables are in place with considerably fewer services running than was published for May.

It is entirely sensible that these should recover, both in terms of frequency and reliability, to the planned May level, followed by a short period of stability, before embarking on further stages in May 2019.

What Railfuture does not wish to see is the industry going into its shell in the longer term so compromising the benefits of major upgrades. Railfuture wants to see further upgrades delivering benefits to passenger and freight customers in terms of both capacity and resilience.

What about the other six operators planning big changes? Why not confine this to Northern and Thameslink?

There are various reasons here. In some cases such as with London Overground a similar position as with Northern applies - late delivery of rolling stock and infrastructure.

South Western Railway were planning very big changes again using refurbished and recently delivered rolling stock and the management team was keen to implement them. The question here as elsewhere is whether they are really ready? Proper industry leadership and industry process would have provided the necessary verification. A short pause here whist lessons are learned from elsewhere may indeed be wise.

TransPennine made significant changes in the May timetable. Further changes are only sustainable if they are planned in conjunction with Northern so are deferred until May. This particularly affects the Manchester to Preston corridor. Some of the remainder such as Cross Country are subject to franchise competitions or in the case of West Midland Trains, a major rolling stock delivery programme. Cross Country need a fundamental makeover.

GWR is possibly a disappointment here having delivered the first phase of the Inter City Express Programme (of three), albeit with operational issues with using pairs of short trains in the interim. GWR cannot really get the benefits projected until Phase 2 and 3 are completed allowing for a much more comprehensive service improvement, particularly for services to Devon and Cornwall.

Railfuture’s View

These changes must be seen as a pragmatic response to current problems, and part of a phased plan to implement the benefits of the huge investment going into the rail industry.

The rail industry must not go into its shell as a result of this as the situation eases as we need continued investment in it. Passengers must see the benefits in terms of increased capacity and service to more customers,. even if implemented more slowly,

The industry, to be successful, does need to address the issues of providing leadership in the form of a strong client (ie Government) and a strong response (ie the Rail Development Group).

The systems integrator role needs to be addressed urgently within Network Rail, as does a more disciplined and timely timetable implementation process.

A much longer term, strategic co-ordinated approach to driver recruitment and training is required.

Train operators who will stay with the May 2018 timetable after the December timetable change are:
Cross Country
Govia Thameslink
Great Western Railway
London Overground
South Western Railway
Trans-Pennine Express
West Midlands Trains

Train operators who will operate new timetables from December 2018 are
Arriva Trains Wales
Caledonian Sleeper
Chiltern Railways
East Midlands Trains
Grand Central
Greater Anglia
Heathrow Express
Hull Trains
TfL Rail/The Elizabeth Line
Virgin Trains West Coast

Rail Delivery Group announcement

Railfuture article Timetable trauma