In most years timetable changes are relatively minor. Some passengers are affected and services are reshaped, but the overall shape of the national timetable remains the same. However the changes rolled out on Sunday 20th May probably represent the biggest set of changes since nationalisation and the formation of British Rail in 1948. Drastic changes are required because the previous timetable wasn’t working reliably any more, and new trains and infrastructure allow the operator to run more, faster or different services – and this year, for many TOCs nationally, both of these drastic reasons have aligned at exactly the same time.

The growth of passenger numbers since privatisation has led to increased dwell times at stations. More passengers need to alight and board, and that means the trains are spending longer in stations. For decades the assumption has been that 30 seconds should be enough time to unload and load at small suburban stations, but data (and experience) has increasingly shown that in many locations this no longer holds true. This has been leading to services building up delays along their routes, arriving at their final destination late and – because an inbound service naturally tends to then become an outbound – often not departing as the next service on time. Indeed one of the most noticeable consequences of these timetable changes in the London area is that many suburban stations will now have minimum dwell time of 1 minute, unless they are very quiet.

We are also at the peak of a wave of record spending on infrastructure and new trains in the UK – for example the Thameslink programme and electrification in the North West. For the first time, both the infrastructure and trains are in place to allow more and longer trains to run on some key lines for faster journeys on others. The scale of the changes occurring at the same time is practically unprecedented. It has certainly meant that planning resources at Network Rail and the TOCs have been stretched extremely thin, not just due to the scale of the timetable changes that are all occurring at once, but because the franchise system naturally means different TOCs are trying to implement different, sometimes incompatible plans in parallel. Despite the efforts of all involved, there has been less pre-checking and oversight than is normal at stages within the process this May. This has, in some cases, resulted in timetables being finalised just over a day before the change, as opposed to the normal industry standard of 12 weeks.

Operating the Thameslink Core from St Pancras to Blackfriars at the full frequency of 24tph was always recognised as likely to be a considerable challenge. The original plan was a two-phase implementation, with 20tph through the core from May 2018 and the full 24tph from December 2018. However, in November 2017 an independent review by the Thameslink Programmme Industry Readiness Board, chaired by Chris Gibb, made a pragmatic decision to phase the introduction of Thameslink services in 4 phases, each 6 months apart in 2018 and 2019. This was necessary for a number of reasons, some predictable, some not.

A lack of drivers

Gibb identified that there weren’t enough drivers available overall, they weren’t in the right locations and did not have the right route training to enable the number of services GTR intended to be run. This lack of drivers actually predates the GTR franchise. Both the previous franchise holders informed the DfT almost six years ago that the department would need to fund a ramp up in driver recruitment and training to prevent a major driver shortfall, otherwise the services could not be run as intended both during, and after, the London Bridge rebuild.

Training drivers, however, isn’t as simple as passing them out on simulators. It requires extensive instruction and real time on real trains. The lack of existing capacity to train large numbers of drivers at the same time required a programme to increase driver training capacity was required as well.

Even though steps have been taken to correct this, changes in Thameslink routes with fewer “Southern” destinations as a result of changing plans (ie not Caterham or Tattenham Corner) and more “SouthEastern” destinations (ie Rainham via Greenwich and Ashford/ Maidstone East via London Bridge) have had a major impact – drivers may know the route but not the train, or vice-versa. Train drivers can’t simply turn up and drive any train – they need to understand and be cleared for, the routes that they drive. These changes have resulted in drivers being required in different locations to those originally planned or even where drivers had been hired.

Although some of the blame for this has been laid at GTR’s door, to a certain extent they are also victims of issues at the DfT. The biggest indicator of that is that many of the driver issues can be traced back to the GTR franchise bid having too few drivers specified, as a result of a DfT error in the numbers given to bidders. GTR’s assumptions were based on those numbers. This driver shortage has meant that timetable changes on 3 of the 9 Thameslink routes will have to be implemented over several weeks, if not months.

Rolling stock and infrastructure issues

Later delivery and acceptance of the new rolling stock (procured by DfT) has meant less new stock available to train drivers on, driver time spent on testing and accepting new stock later than expected, and less new stock to swap existing services to, in particular on the services transferring from Southern, Great Northern or SouthEastern to Thameslink to in advance of the timetable changes.

Gibb also identified that there was the lack of a viable timetable. None of the four bidders for the franchise submitted a viable proposed timetable with their bids. GTR’s happened to be the least worst. Nonetheless, it required a lot of changes to produce a viable timetable.

There are infrastructure limitations at Windmill Bridge junction which prevent running the originally planned 16tph from London Bridge to East Croydon, meaning it is only possible to ‘launch’ with 12tph. There had also been delays to the delivery and testing of the Traffic Management System (an addition to the signalling system) which helps signallers better regulate services to ensure on time arrival at the Thameslink core. A lack of stabling space means that GTR had to store 10% of its class 700 fleet off its network.

The delay in electrification to Corby has meant that Thameslink has had to remove stops from some services north of St Pancras to provide alternative capacity for the stops that EMT has removed at Bedford and Luton (ironically so that EMT can improve timekeeping by allowing longer layovers at termini and increased dwell times along the route, and to facilitate the new Thameslink timetable), leaving commuters facing slower journeys.

For Northern, the key issue has been the delay in completing the Bolton electrification project, which was not declared until January 2018 when Carillion failed, leaving insufficient time to define a robust resourced timetable without the rolling stock which should have been cascaded with the introduction of more electric trains.

Softly Softly

There are ‘soft’ problems too. The sheer scale of the changes place a huge amount of pressure on the organisation making them, and Gibb concluded that GTR simply didn’t have the bandwidth to make lots of changes, to sufficiently high level of quality, at once. This can in part be attributed to the DfT’s drive for a low cost bid, forcing a slimline management structure and under-resourced (and under-rewarded) train planning department..

The fact that the changes also involve working with previously untried levels of frequency means more time will be required to establish service reliability. This includes passenger and driver familiarity after each set of changes, which is especially important at high frequencies and with tight timing margins in places. This is a lesson learnt from the January 2015 timetable changes at London Bridge.

How it’s working so far

During the first working week of the new timetable , on average 12.2% of Thameslink services were 5 minutes late or more and 11.2% of services were cancelled – ie around 300 per day in total. Many services initially reported as delayed had in fact been cancelled, adding to confusion for passengers waiting. The knock-on effects of delays during the day meant that the evening timetable was just not credible.

In an attempt to use the limited numbers of suitably trained drivers most effectively, GTR are using drivers who know the route to pilot drivers who know the train over certain sections (even though this requires more drivers), but this increases the knock-on effect of delays as late arrival at the end of a section means that the pilot driver is not available in time to pilot a service in the opposite direction.

The number of delays and cancellations has been increasing day by day, undermining the initial optimism that the service would improve in a couple of weeks. GTR is now admitting it is a 2 month issue in places - it would have been better to admit that sooner and move to a phased approach.

GTR is now reviewing the timetable and rosters each night, removing trains from the timetable which it will be unable to run due to the lack of driver availability. It would be better to move to a consistent reduced timetable, so passengers know what to expect. Northern’s emergency timetable starts on Monday 4th June 2018 cuts 165 services per day (6%), less than the 200 or so services that have been affected each day, but still running more services than before the timetable change on 20th May. The Rail Delivery Group has announced that Thameslink will introduce a new temporary timetable as soon as possible.

More critically, the evidence seems to be that GTR are presenting issues arising from the lack of drivers as generic ‘operational incidents’. This will not play well to passengers and the media. Whilst the public care about the journey they have to make not issues of railway logistics, they do appreciate honesty, which in the long term will help to rebuild trust. Even more important, it will reduce the unjustified abuse which staff are currently receiving from some unhappy passengers.

Politics of rail disruption

In the 1997 General Election, dissatisfaction in ‘commuter land’ was recognised as one of the main reasons that Labour performed well there with Tony Blair as leader. With the next election in 2022 (or earlier, depending on the outcome of Brexit) the government and opposition parties are acutely aware of the potential impact of commuter discontent.

There are 9 marginal constituencies within the Thameslink catchment area. MPs’ postbags are swelling with the Thameslink failures, and Transport Secretary Chris Grayling (Con, Epsom & Ewell – SWR and Southern) will be at the ultimate receiving end. A sample check of Thameslink MPs’ recent communications in local newspapers and tweets to constituents shows that the topic is already making headlines. The risk to politicians if the Thameslink issues aren’t addressed and sorted out is that commuting woes will be added to the public dissatisfaction. That will be laid at the government’s door come the next election, which no doubt has led to the letters from the Transport Secretary to local MPs placing the blame squarely on Network Rail and the train operators.

The evidence above demonstrates clearly that the Government cannot disassociate itself from the failings – because of its persistent refusal to address driver shortages even at the start of the Thameslink franchise specification, and because the minimum number of new Thameslink trains were ordered with no practical margin to cover any stock shortfall. DfT also dictates the priorities and budgets for Network Rail, failing to prioritise the recruitment and retention of timetable planning staff. The result of these failures is now plain for all to see, and it enables opposition parties to critique with more force the DfT’s micro-management of the rail companies.

What urgent steps need to be taken now?

The issue is a fairly simple one – GTR apparently now have enough drivers but not enough have the have the required route knowledge and /or to a much lesser extent have not been trained on the Class 700s. Getting in anyone else to look at the problem won’t produce a different diagnosis or a radically different action plan to address the training gaps. We are effectively 27 months in to the 30 months that it takes to recruit and train all the drivers needed, so now it is just about bridging that last 3 month gap, and ensuring that more drivers are not poached, for example by Crossrail. So a fragile service seems likely for a while to come.

The proposal for gradual timetable changes in the Transport Secretary’s letter is not realistic. These very timetable changes are required to drive the revenue increases which in turn fund the premia committed in franchise agreements. Delaying changes when passenger growth is stuttering would put more franchises at risk of failing.

The lessons also have to be learnt for the future by both the rail companies and DfT. The staffing required for every planned change must be planned and resourced. Robust fallback plans must be in place for the timetable changes to come in December 2018, in 2019 and 2020. The DfT must acquire the expertise need to act as an intelligent client, so that it can assess the deliverability of franchise bids and the interaction between programmes involving multiple operators as well as Network Rail. DfT must also support the rail industry by providing consistency and air cover when difficult decisions have to be made.

Based on articles published on the London Reconnections website, with permission from the author:
The Cicadas Take Flight: Explaining the May Timetable Changes
The Politics of Thameslink’s Troubles
Thameslink The Musical Act 4, Scene 3: The Grayling Letter

Transport Secretary’s letter to Thameslink MPs
Transport Secretary’s letter to Northern MPs

GTR brief to stakeholders in response to Transport Secretary’s letter

Rail Delivery Group statement

Tweet by Sir Peter Hendy, Chair of Network Rail

Railplan 2020 website

BBC article including comments from Redhill, Reigate and District Rail Users Association