Passengers waiting at Haymarket for the 1000 to Dunblane on December 10 2018 looked confused when a white electric multiple unit arrived. One or two asked the driver where he was going.

His answers reassured them. They boarded. Their train headed west, crossing junctions at Polmont and Carmuirs to turn north towards Stirling and Dunblane.

I understand their confusion. Until the timetable changed in December their trains were blue and diesel. Now they’re electric. ScotRail uses white Class 365s that it secured when it realised that Hitachi’s Class 385s would be late.

A white Class 365 electric train leaves Stirling with a ScotRail service to Dunblane in December 2018. ScotRail used this fleet to counter problems with Hitachi delivering Class 385s late.
A white Class 365 electric train leaves Stirling with a ScotRail service to Dunblane in December 2018. ScotRail used this fleet to counter problems with Hitachi delivering Class 385s late.

I’d be surprised if many of ScotRail’s senior managers have any nails left. There have been many railway problems with their new electric services. Those Class 385s should have started Edinburgh-Glasgow services from December 2017. Only now are they entering service. Problems included windscreens giving drivers multiple images.

They’d seen the mess that England’s Department for Transport caused for GTR. They had witnessed Northern’s railway problems when Network Rail delivered Bolton’s electrification late. Scotland’s plans came with high stakes.

Sure, there were some cancellations on that first weekday, usually because some crews remained untrained on their new traction. But when you consider rail union RMT’s overtime ban and the challenge of training staff on new trains, I think ScotRail has done well.

Scotland’s success

Stirling, Dunblane and Alloa now have electric services to and from Edinburgh and Glasgow. There’s a new Edinburgh-Glasgow service running via Cumbernauld into Queen Street. It uses Hitachi Class 385s (or sometimes a Class 380 as I found on December 10). HSTs slowly replace Class 170s on ScotRail’s inter-city services. OK, ScotRail isn’t using the refurbished stock it wanted but HSTs are better than DMUs.

I welcome Scotland’s transition to electric trains. It heralds faster journey times, longer trains and more seats.

Scotland’s success provides a bright spot in a dire year for Britain’s railway. The plan was different. Thameslink was going to increase services. Northern was going to extend electric services and release diesel trains to provide more seats elsewhere.

England’s problems

On the East Coast Main Line, passengers thought they would join their Great Western counterparts aboard new Hitachi IEP trains. TransPennine Express was to run between Liverpool and Scotland. South Western Railway was going to provide more seats and capacity into Waterloo from December 2018. 

Finally, Crossrail was going to open in 2018 and provide a new link between east and west London. But Crossrail has major railway problems and admitted in August that it would be a year late. Worse came on December 10 when Crossrail chiefs talked down that possibility. It might now open in 2020. DfT and Transport for London gave the project another financial bail-out with a £1.3bn loan.

December brought confirmation of January’s fare rise. It brought two reports that explained the problems with last May’s timetables. They generated more adverse headlines to further dent any remaining trust in Britain’s railways. The Office of Rail and Road produced one report. Lilian Greenwood’s transport committee published the other.

Neither made easy reading. They labelled the railway as complacent. Despite playing a major role in Thameslink’s problems, DfT escapes lightly. It only gave formal permission to delay the increase in Thameslink services when it was too late to make that change. DfT’s late decision gave Network Rail and Thameslink too little time to plan their timetable from scratch. Thameslink had too little time to plan its stock and crew diagrams. The result was a meltdown. Thameslink could not tell passengers what trains would or would not be running.

Solving railway problems

The DfT told MPs that no-one had told it the decision was urgent. Thameslink’s parent, GTR, told ORR that it had verbally told the DfT that it needed the decision by June 2017. Its decision came in October. MPs describe this difference in views as a “point of contention”, which is putting it mildly.

When DfT claims that it didn’t realise that GTR’s request to cut May’s timetable was urgent (to reduce the risks inherent in a ‘big bang’ switch), it’s showing profound ignorance of timetabling processes. Transport Secretary Chris Grayling may claim he doesn’t run the railway but DfT owns Network Rail, funds major projects such as Thameslink’s and lets the franchises to run trains. So, it’s reasonable to expect it to know the basics of how NR assembles timetables and know that decisions must match deadlines.

Greenwood’s report says: “In a fragmented, over-complicated system, with competing contractual interests, only the Secretary of State had the ultimate authority to judge the inevitable trade-offs and halt the implementation in good time but at no point was he given all the information he needed to make that decision.”

DfT sits in the driving seat

It’s only DfT that has overall sight of Network Rail’s activities and the plans of passenger franchises. It took this role when ministers abolished the Strategic Rail Authority over a decade ago. Civil servants in DfT should not be surprised that they are responsible for briefing their ministers and extracting decisions from them in good time to be implemented. After all, DfT chairs many of the boards overseeing NR and train operator projects. DfT has ORR to provide independent assurance but ORR seems to prefer assurances from optimistic managers delivering delayed projects rather than checking itself.

No reorganisation will fix the railway if a key player sits on its hands and claims ignorance of railway problems every time something on its watch goes wrong. The MPs cautiously welcomed short-term moves to give NR Chief Executive Andrew Haines authority to decide whether or not to change timetables.

He will need to be very canny in the way he exercises this authority. The premium payments that operators have promised DfT depend in most cases on timetable changes that create capacity, allowing more ticket sales and more revenue. Cancellation or postponement will cut DfT’s payments and so Haines will be, in effect, spending the DfT’s money beyond ministerial control. This was one of the reasons that ministers abolished the SRA.

Make timetabling simpler

Timetabling could be simpler. For a start train operators should use the same software as Network Rail. ORR found them using several different systems which, in the worst cases, means that someone has to manually input train operator plans into NR’s system. Incredibly, ORR’s report says the railway has no single dataset that accurately describes track layouts, running times and the rules for trains using NR’s infrastructure.

Although ORR emerges from May’s meltdown as damaged as anyone else, there’s much in its report that had me nodding in agreement. It notes that the overall objective is to provide benefits for passenger and freight users rather than just delivering projects. ORR calls for a change in culture and says that managers must be willing to give and receive bad news.

It calls for a permanent capability to oversee and manage the risks coming from major projects that affect each other. Whatever form the capability takes, ORR recommends that it has authority, expertise and trust.

Trust will only come from results and trust is in short supply. Authority already exists and sits firmly with the DfT for English franchises. Expertise has traditionally rested with ORR which had a history of calling in independent reporters to assess projects. Perhaps ORR should develop its project assurance as its safety arm has?

But, most of all, DfT needs to take a long look in the mirror. It cannot continue to sit astride the railway with its eyes shut and its fingers in its ears, ignoring railway problems.

This article first appeared in RAIL 868, published on December 19 2019.

By Philip Haigh

Freelance railway writer, former deputy editor at RAIL magazine - news, views and analysis of today's railway.

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