Rail timetable chaos a ‘major unforced error’

Thameslink service
Thameslink service

‘Chaos’ caused by major timetable changes across the Southern and Thameslink rail network ‘appears to be a major unforced error’, according to one MP.

Govia Thameslink Railway, which runs Southern, Thameslink and Gatwick Express services, brought in the changes on May 20.

But since then it has cancelled hundreds of Thameslink services and forced to bring in a reduced temporary timetable.

Mid Sussex MP Sir Nicholas Soames described how the East Grinstead line had ‘finally fallen over completely’, while trains from Haywards Heath, Wivelsfield and Burgess Hill are ‘shorter and more overcrowded’.

Speaking in the Commons on Monday, he added: “People’s private lives are being destroyed and this whole thing is an absolute disaster.”

Meanwhile Nick Herbert, who represents Hassocks and Hurstpierpoint, has written to Transport Secretary Chris Grayling about the problems since the new timetable came into force.

In his letter he criticised the ‘appalling state of the rail service’ in his constituency.

Mr Herbert raised the fact that the new timetable had already removed a raft of peak direct commuter services to London Bridge and Clapham Junction from Hassocks, but ‘matters have been made far worse by the chaotic introduction of the new timetable’.

He added: “The changeover has been shambolic, with services being cut, cancelled or ‘removed from service’ without prior warning.”

He said the situation could not be allowed to continue into the summer.

Mr Herbert continued: “These timetable changes cannot be blamed on another party, but are the industry’s own initiative.

“The changes may have been intended to improve services overall, but they have manifestly been abysmally planned and executed, and those responsible must be held to account for the failures.

“After such an extended period of disruption, and knowing the fragility of the service which was hardly in steady state, it was foolish for GTR and Network Rail not to foresee the risks of such a big timetable change and question their own readiness.

“The chaos appears to have been a major unforced error.”

Mr Grayling has announced an inquiry into why the new timetables failed to work.

The work will be led by Stephen Glaister, chair of the Office of Rail and Road.

A spokesman for GTR said: “We welcome the inquiry and will co-operate fully. The industry as a whole undoubtedly has lessons to learn from what has happened.”

While a report is due by the end of the year Mr Grayling said he wanted initial responses much sooner.

In parallel he would be asking Department for Transport officials to assess whether GTR has met its contractual obligations in planning and delivering the timetable changes.

This will look at if the operator had sufficient resources and skills to deliver the new timetable and what contingency plans were in place.

If the company is found to be materially in breach of its contractual obligations Mr Grayling would take ‘appropriate enforcement action’.

He acknowledged the late finalisation of the timetables by Network Rail had not given train operators enough time to plan crew schedules or complete crew training, but also suggested GTR did not have enough drivers with the route knowledge required and had no clear fall-back plan.

The process of introducing GTR’s new timetable was overseen by both an industry readiness board and an independent assurance panel.

Mr Grayling described how both groups had told him they had been given no information to suggest the new timetable should not be implemented as planned, while three weeks before May 20 he had been assured personally by GTR it was ready to go ahead with the changes.

Last week GTR and Network Rail issued a joint apology to passengers affected by the disruption.

Charles Horton, chief executive officer at GTR, said they were ‘sorry that we have not been able to deliver the service that passengers expect’.

Mark Carne, Network Rail’s chief executive, added: “We are all firmly focussed on fixing this issue as quickly as possible to give passengers the reliable service they need and deserve. At the moment, in some parts of the country, that simply isn’t happening and for that I’d like to wholeheartedly apologise.”

Responding to the inquiry, Mr Herbert said: “I welcome your announcement of an inquiry by the independent Office of Rail and Road into the timetable changes, and hope that this will identify the issues as soon as possible.

“I note your assurance that you will not hesitate to take enforcement action against GTR if it is materially in breach of its contractual obligations, and your comment that ‘there is unquestionably a large question mark over its future’.

“Any such action, including the loss of the franchise, will have my full support.

“No more excuses can be made for this company, which has completely lost the confidence of my constituents. I hope the inquiry will also establish the extent to which Network Rail is responsible. If they share the blame then their senior managers must also be held to account for the failures and if necessary removed.”

In an earlier letter to his constituents, Sir Nicholas said: “I have taken the Secretary of State through the many and varied issues, not least, total inconsistency, unreliability and general failure to deliver the service in an orderly and effective manner and thus causing terrific upset and inconvenience.

“To be fair, some services are improved but the failures are too numerous and too strategically badly placed and the Secretary of State is undertaking his own enquiries in relation to the problems on our various lines.”

He added: “In the long run I am confident that there will indeed be a better service, but the inconvenience caused by the chaos in embedding this timetable has been totally unacceptable. I really regret it and I am very sorry indeed that my constituents should have been so seriously inconvenienced.

In a letter to Sir Nicholas, Nick Brown chief operating officer of GTR, said: “This is not the introduction to the new timetable that we wanted and that many have worked on for over three years. We fully expected our passengers to see major improvements and from our end, everything had been meticulously planned to make this happen. That it has not is a great disappointment to all of us at GTR and for that we are sorry.”