20 May: What really happened

Source: RTM Oct/Nov 2018

Dan Brown, director of strategy and policy at the ORR, walks us through the first part of the regulator’s inquiry into the timetable chaos that ensued earlier this year.

On 20 May 2018, a new timetable was introduced which plunged rail passengers in two parts of the country into weeks of disruption and suffering. How did this happen, and what can be done to prevent it happening again? With similarly major timetable changes planned for this December and May 2019, these questions require urgent answers.

The May 2018 timetable was always intended to be the largest revision in living memory, with changes to 46% of train times. The introduction into service of the new Thameslink Programme was many years in the planning; in the northern region, the first stage of the major upgrade of track, signalling and rolling stock to take advantage of newly electrified lines was planned to transform the experience for passengers. Instead, the delivery of major benefits for passengers became a major embarrassment for the industry.

Failure across the system

Astonishingly, the risks of failure were not understood by any party until after it had begun.

The interim report that the ORR published in September set out a forensic account of the events leading up to 20 May, going back several years. We found problems at multiple stages of preparation. We found single points of system failure at multiple stages over the course of two years, without which the chaos could have been avoided or significantly mitigated. We found these failures were attributable to most of the key parties in the system, including Network Rail, the train operators, and the DfT and ORR, which oversee the industry. We found that there were missed opportunities because accountability was diffused across the system that developed and implemented the timetable and the engineering projects on which it relied.

The railway is a complex set of interdependent activities. Decisions or failures in one activity can have implications for the delivery of service over a large geographical area, the more so as the numbers of trains and passengers have increased. It has become clear that there are inadequate mechanisms to ensure that decisions involving any one activity observe a due regard for implications for the system as a whole.

When a change to a system requires a sequence of stages, the implementation plan must include deadlines for each stage designed to allow subsequent processes to complete in good time. A particularly large or complicated set of changes make it all the more important that the plan is respected. On the contrary, for the May timetable changes there were well-intentioned but counterproductive late adjustments to the programme that introduced unmanageable risks as timetables slipped and the process was overwhelmed.

The way ahead

In the next stage of the inquiry, we will be using these findings to develop recommendations to industry, government, and to ourselves, for change.

We will be making recommendations that focus on how to make Network Rail’s process for developing major timetable changes more robust, especially where these are dependent on the delivery of major infrastructure schemes. Because these enhancement programmes are managed under a framework established by the DfT with Network Rail, we will be looking at the role of government, and are likely to make recommendations to Keith Williams’ review into the structure of the rail industry, which was established in light of our report (more on p10).

We are looking at whether to take regulatory action against the train operators, which let passengers down so badly. And we will also be directly addressing the role of the ORR. Although the ORR was taking action ahead of the May timetable change once we saw problems emerge, we did not recognise the likelihood of disruption on the scale experienced. We need to look again at how we monitor the industry and how to better understand the risks emerging from major programmes.

This cannot be allowed to happen again. Public trust in the railway is falling, at a time when we should have the right to feel proud of the huge investments being made to improve the services that passengers rely on every day.

The Inquiry Team

The secretary of state for transport, Chris Grayling, announced on 4 June that the ORR, under the chairmanship of Stephen Glaister, was to undertake an inquiry into what really happened in May 2018.

By 13 June, we had agreed the terms of reference and committed to producing the report in two stages – the first in September.

The first job was to put together a team. We needed experts in timetabling, access, licensing, enhancements, safety, the law and more, as well as administrative support. In the end we assembled around 20 full-time staff, supplemented by others who dipped in and out as they were needed.

And we needed every single one of them. During the course of the inquiry we analysed more than 2,000 documents and our online questionnaire brought in 2,500 responses, each of which had to be carefully read and considered.

We conducted 32 face-to-face interviews in London, Manchester and Edinburgh with people in the industry, and each of those had to be carefully prepared for, then analysed afterwards.

We were grateful to receive submissions from industry stakeholders, rail user groups, national, regional and devolved governments, and from passengers who wanted to tell us their stories. All of this was supplemented by three focus groups and regular chats with station staff, on-board staff and commuters.

It was a mammoth task which ended in writing a 180-page report that detailed in minute detail the events that led to the breakdown of services on 20 May.

And it didn’t end there. Now we have put together another team and we’re working hard to produce a set of recommendations to take the industry forward – and we’ve got until December to do it!


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