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Timetable chaos: Rail industry ‘lacks courage’ to say no to impossible demands

The rail industry needs to pluck up the courage to say no to others instead of trying to accommodate every single stakeholder demand – and then failing to deliver on these expectations, rail veteran Chris Gibb has said.

Gibb, who chairs the Thameslink 2018 Industry Readiness Board (IRB) and is currently being paid by Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) to advise the operator at the DfT’s request, spoke this week to MPs in the Transport Committee as part of an investigation into May’s timetable changes.

Admitting that he is “absolutely mortified” that things have gone wrong with the major shake-up, Gibb argued one of the reasons behind the allegedly unexpected timetable failure was that the rail industry “is not very good” at turning down stakeholder demands.

“Stakeholders have demands for timetable changes, often very late in the day. As an industry, we have to have the courage to turn round to people and say, ‘I’m sorry, you cannot have that extra stop at three days’ notice because the timetable just won’t work with it.’ We are not very good at that,” he told MPs. “As an industry, we try very hard to embrace everybody’s demands on the system, however late they are sometimes, in the most ambitious fashion we can. Often, that works, but occasionally it does not work.”

Another key lesson to take away from this fiasco is that the industry “should respect the timetable planning deadlines,” which are there “for a reason” and have been put in place by experience over many years. “The industry should know how long it takes to plan a timetable, turn it into drivers’ diagrams and rosters, and make the thing work,” he argued.

‘Time simply ran out’

Gibb was, however, unable to attribute the timetable failure – which affected thousands of passengers across the GTR and Northern networks when rolled out on 20 May – to a single person or entity. In fact, he assured MPs that during IRB’s last meeting before the new timetable, on 4 May, all issues presented could be mitigated.

“On the particular issue of delivery of the timetable on 20 May, unfortunately, with the benefit of hindsight, it would seem that time simply ran out. With a little bit more time, all the issues faced on 20 May could have been dealt with, but the time ran out. I do not think the industry understood the consequences of the time running out in the way it did,” he continued.

“Between 4 May and 20 May, time really ran out and it was impossible to get enough drivers in the right places with the right skills, working to the very inefficient plan that had been prepared at the very last moment when the timetable was eventually agreed. If we had had more time on any level, we would have made a better job of it as an industry.

“When the readiness board met on 4 May, it believed that we were ready to go on 20 May, with a few cancellations. Tens of cancellations was the scale that we believed it to be. That is what we had been told. Nobody at the board disagreed with that analysis at the time.”

There were red alerts in place about driver availability, especially regarding driver skills, right up to the last minute. But GTR was prepared for this, with the TOC even having around 60 pilot drivers in place in case there was any trouble on any section of the route.

“We went through all of that again on 4 May. In fact, at the end of the meeting on 4 May, I looked around the boardroom table and asked if there was anything else that anybody felt could get in the way of a successful 20 May launch. Nobody said anything,” Gibb admitted.

After the IRB’s last meeting on 4 May, the Thameslink chief said “things snowballed pretty rapidly into larger-scale cancellations,” despite leaders only expecting a few cancellations at first which would mostly impact night services.

“The worst thing of all was the random nature of the cancellations at times; it depends on which drivers are on which roster each day,” he carried on. “That has been the most difficult thing to communicate to passengers. It is the kind of thing that no railway professional ever wants to see in their career.”

Reiterating his disappointment, Gibb explained that he has spent his whole career making passenger services better, adding: “I take some responsibility for that, as do my colleagues in the industry. We as an industry have let the government down on this particular project. We have not delivered what we said we would as an industry, and I am very disappointed by that.”

When asked by the committee’s chair, Lilian Greenwood, how confident he was that passengers will see a major improvement this weekend once a ‘Plan B’ timetable is introduced on 15 July, Gibb said: “I am very much aiming at that as the outcome. I do not want to be mortified any longer.”


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