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ORR report: ‘No one took charge’ in May timetable chaos, ‘everyone made mistakes’

A scathing report into the May timetable chaos has blasted transport secretary Chris Grayling, Network Rail, and the DfT’s handling of the widespread crisis, claiming “no one took charge” when issues started to arise.

The report, led by rail regulator ORR chair Professor Stephen Glaister, was commissioned by Grayling in June after the nation’s networks entered a crisis of cancellations, delays, and major disruption caused by new timetables introduced on 20 May.

The three-month inquiry found that Network Rail, Northern, GTR, the DfT, and the regulator themselves “all made mistakes” which contributed to the collapse of services, particularly on GTR and Northern routes.

Some of the root causes behind the chaos stemmed from Network Rail’s failure to complete the North West Electrification Programme (NWEP) in the set timeframe before the new timetables were to be introduced, as part of the £1bn Great North Rail Project which aimed to electrify the Blackpool to Manchester route.

Another key issue centred on the planning stages of the new timetables: the inquiry found that during the early stages “the industry placed engineering and planning concerns ahead of serving its passengers,” issues that were made worse by the poor information train operators provided when the disruption occurred.

Shortfalls in infrastructure electrification for Northern came to a head over five months before the timetables were due to be introduced, the inquiry noted.

“On 5 January 2018, the Extraordinary North of England Programme Board decided that implementing a further closure of the railway to deliver NWEP Phase 4 for May 2018 would be too disruptive for passengers,” the report said. “As a consequence, Northern was required to fundamentally re-cast its timetable, with 16 weeks available to complete work that would normally take 40 weeks under the schedule in Part D of the Network Code.”

‘An apparent gap in industry responsibility and accountability’

Amongst other issues highlighted by the Glaister-led inquiry was that there “is an apparent gap in industry responsibility and accountability risks, and that needs to change.” Neither GTR nor Northern were properly aware of or prepared for problems in delivering the timetable, and they did not do enough to provide accurate information to passengers when the disruption occurred.

The report also made reference to misfires in leadership during the crisis, making reference to Network Rail— referred to as the ‘System Operator’— not “taking sufficient action” to the problems that were developing in rail networks across the UK.

It explained: “Network Rail’s timetable planning department, the System Operator, was best placed to notice that a problem was developing and they did recognise this. But they did not take sufficient action to manage the risks or the consequences. The present industry arrangements do not support clarity of decision making: it was unclear who was responsible for what. Nobody took charge.”

In addition, the DfT and ORR have responsibilities “overseeing most aspects of the industry,” the inquiry said – yet “neither organisation sufficiently tested the assurances that they received from the industry about the risk of disruption, despite having information and powers that would have allowed them to do so.”

Glaister said: “The May 2018 timetable was meant to offer more services and reliability, but in reality it led to major disruption for passengers. Today’s report uncovers the issues that Network Rail, GTR, Northern, ORR and the DfT together need to address to stop this disruption happening again.

“Central to the issues were that good intentions and over-optimism within the rail industry about its ability to recover missed deadlines left no time to uncover and fix problems. When problems arose, timetable planners were stretched and train operators were ill-equipped to help passengers. This meant that staff worked in very difficult circumstances to do as good a job as possible and I thank them for their efforts.”

Andrew Haines, Network Rail chief executive, said: “Today, I’d like to add my sincerest apologies to passengers for letting them down with May’s timetable troubles. A whole system approach to timetable planning must be the way ahead and we have already started on that path with the new winter timetable due in December that will see some modest improvements.

"This approach will continue as we look to ensure that passengers see the benefit of record investment and new services, welcoming them with confidence rather than concern.”

In a statement released this morning, Northern Rail said: "The ORR Report has confirmed that the root cause of the timetable disruption was delays to engineering projects to improve the railway. Normally, train operators are given 40 weeks to plan the twice-yearly introduction of a new timetable. However, due to delayed engineering projects in north west England, Northern had to entirely re-write its May 2018 timetable in just 16 weeks.

"Northern will now consider in detail the findings in the ORR Report. We want to learn the lessons of the May timetable disruption and will be working closely with other organisations across the rail industry to ensure new timetabling is implemented as effectively as possible for customers in the future."

Paul Plummer, CEO of the Rail Delivery Group, said: “The structural issues highlighted in this report underline the need for the wide-ranging, root and branch rail review we have been calling for to deliver meaningful reform that puts customers at the heart of the railway.

“Working together we are determined to learn the lessons to avoid a repeat of May’s disruption which stemmed from our ambition to deliver the step-change in rail services people want to see. The rail industry stands ready to build on the recommendations and deliver a better railway for passengers and the country.”

Barry White, chief executive of Transport for the North, said: “The Report’s summary highlights the Rail Delivery Group’s statement that ‘the timetable is our promise to passengers’. This summer, in the north of England, and elsewhere, that promise was broken. That is unacceptable. It was passengers who suffered and that must not be allowed to happen again.

"The findings of this report when it is concluded, informed by the findings of our own review now underway through the Rail North Partnership, will help further ensure that passengers’ voices are heard.”


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