#NorthernFail – Making the operational perfect storm

The saga of the May 20th UK railway timetable changes continue. Modified services remain in place on the Northern network, still fewer trains are running than before the May timetable change, though a reinstatement of Rest Day Working for Drivers and a temporary timetable has stabilised things somewhat.

In an amazing show of “can-do”, West Coast Railways – the Carnforth-based people who ran the Hogwarts Express for the Harry Potter films, as well as some splendid rail trips with steam locomotives – worked with Westmorland and Lonsdale MP Tim Farron to manage to return trains to the Lakes Line to Windermere, which hadn’t seen a train for two weeks.

Meanwhile the heads of the involved TOCs and their planning subject matter experts, and colleagues from Network Rail, have been required to give evidence in front of the House of Commons Transport Select Committee.

You can see the full session – almost 2 hours and 30 minutes – at parliamentlive.tv.

What was clear from the evidence is that the entire UK Rail Industry and various Governments had a part to play in letting us down, and worse still, no one person has executive responsibility, even to act on massive red flags.

The existence of the temporary service on the Lakes Line has even focused Northern’s mind it seems, because they’ve now said they expect to return Northern-operated trains to the line earlier than originally anticipated, Northern MD David Brown giving a date of 2nd July to the Committee.

They obviously didn’t much like being shown up by a heritage rail operator.

But back to the Perfect Storm…

A number of conditions came together to cause the chaos wreaked on us since 20th May:

  • Late handover of planned infrastructure improvements: In particular the Preston-Blackpool resignalling and electrification. This work didn’t just put up overhead wires, but replaced all the signalling, changed the positioning of junctions and the entire layout of Blackpool North station. This section of line was effectively a new railway and drivers needed to re-train on the route.
  • Failure to deliver other key infrastructure improvements: The electrification via Bolton to Preston is now delayed until the end of the year. This project has suffered multiple setbacks including the lead contractor withdrawing from the work back in 2015 because they said it would overrun, the replacement contractor (Carillion) going bust, and issues with ground stability (discovery of pockets of sand and abandoned mine shafts). This project will be almost two years late if it is delivered at the December timetable change as currently hoped.
  • Unavailability of promised trains: Northern required a number of extra trains if the 20th May plan was to work properly. These were not new trains, but were being made available through something known in the railway industry as a “cascade“, new trains being delivered elsewhere displace trains to other services. Northern were expecting to get additional trains, compatible with their existing fleets, from Scotland and the South West, however this cascade has failed due to delays in the introduction of new trains. In Scotland the trains are having to be modified because drivers have complained about the visibility through the curved windscreens – likening it to “driving a goldfish bowl”. As a result only a tiny fraction of the expected extra carriages were available.
  • Ongoing labour relations issues in Northern, and this is an area which deserves further explanation in itself.

Why are Northern short of trains now?

This relates to the “cascade” that I eluded to above. Think of the cascade as one of those tile games with one empty square.

The plan was to move trains from Scotland and the Plymouth and Cornwall areas to Northern in time for May 2018. With the odd exception (Class 170 units), these would be stock that are technically identical to that which Northern already have in their operation (Class 150/1, Class 158, Class 319), thus easing requirements for crew training and route-clearance.

However to create the “empty square” that allows the cascades to happen, we had dependencies on four projects:

  • Completion of Paddington to Reading electrification
    • This allows roll out of Class 387 electric trains on Thames Valley suburban services between Reading and Paddington.
    • This permits release of Class 165/166 “Turbo” units to move within GWR from the Thames Valley suburban network to the Bristol area.
    • That allows a cascade of trains within the GWR franchise such that it releases a number of 150/1 “Sprinters”, which already work in the Northern area, to Northern.
  • Edinburgh-Glasgow electrification and roll out of Class 385 Hitachi trains
    • The line has been electrified to plan, but the Class 385s are delayed due to the “goldfish bowl effect” of the curved windscreens.
    • This has delayed release of some Class 158 and Class 170 units from Scotland to Northern.
    • Surplus electric trains  have recently been drafted in to Scotland to cover the gap, and hopefully allow some more trains to move to Northern.
  • Late delivery of upgraded High Speed Train sets, themselves cascaded from GWR by IEP introduction, to Scotrail long distance services
    • This would release further Class 158 and 170 units to Northern.
    • The release of the HSTs from GWR was delayed by slow introduction of the IEP and delays to the Great Western electrification.
  • Non-delivery of Class 769 Bi-Mode “flex” units
    • Converted from Class 319 units by addition of diesel engines so they can operate away from the wires.
    • Made necessary by Government’s indecision on electrification of NW secondary routes such as Oxenholme to Windermere.
    • The prototype has yet to complete testing and be signed off.

Northern was meant to have over 60 additional trains delivered in time for May, including being handed over early enough to allow for crew training on types new to Northern (such as the 170 and 769).

Instead they got less than 30.

Who controls what stock is used and where? To a large extent, despite rail privatisation, there is not really a “free market” for rolling stock.  While stock may be privately owned by banks, trusts and investment companies, much like aircraft leasing, the types of stock and the disposition are largely co-ordinated by the Department for Transport.

Northern is not a unified company

While “Northern by Arriva” might be the brand, and there is one company at the back end, Arriva Rail North Ltd, operationally it is a more complex animal.

Northern is effectively a mash-up of some component parts of previous rail franchises.

Remember First North Western? Remember Northern Spirit (this was Arriva’s previous, and similarly disastrous attempt at running trains in the North)?

15 years ago, the decision was made by Whitehall Mandarins to strip out the long distance routes from Northern Spirit and make a separate “TransPennine Express” franchise, which had aspirations of being more an “Intercity” operator and less of a local operator. Some routes from the old First North Western franchise (such as fast trains from Blackpool or Barrow to Manchester Airport) were also transferred into TPE, in addition.

Once the North Wales operations had also been stripped out of FNW due to Welsh devolution and the creation of a single Wales rail operator, the left overs (the local routes around Manchester, Liverpool, Lancashire & Cumbria) were merged with the left overs from the opposite side of the Pennines.

This created the “zero-growth” Northern franchise of 2004.

However, this wasn’t a unified company, it effectively had two separate halves, an “East Side” and a “West Side”, divided by the Pennines. Each had it’s own trains, and it’s own train crew. More importantly, the terms and conditions of East Side and West Side employees remained as previously – correctly protected by TUPE – but they were never harmonised with the passage of time.

That is a situation that has persisted to this day.

This was complicated further by the 2016 franchise change which took a number of TPE routes and transferred them (and the folk that work them) back into the Northern franchise. This included drivers at depots such as Blackpool and Barrow. These drivers find themselves working once again for Northern, but as their employment was protected by TUPE, their terms and conditions are different again from other Northern “West” drivers.

Northern have ended up with a fragmented workforce, with multiple different contracts, and different terms and conditions.

Furthermore, the railway is still run as two separate halves in terms of traction and train services. Services are either “East side” or “West side”.

This shows in the quality and types of rolling stock deployed in the various areas.

While some trains are obviously captive to their local areas, such as the electric units (Class 323s around Manchester and Class 333 on the Airedale routes), the diesel units are split such that the lion’s share of the more modern units (e.g. air conditioned Class 158 units) are allocated to the East side, while the West side has a greater proportion of older units such as 150/1 and the non-air conditioned Class 156.

This was a significant sea-change on routes such as Blackpool-Manchester which used to enjoy a number of modern air conditioned Class 175 units under First North Western, then Class 185 units when the service passed to Transpennine, but have more recently been served by a mix of the dreaded Pacers, or the older Class 150 or 156 units.

In the cascade of rolling stock, the newer Class 170 units from Scotland being transferred to Northern will also appear to be focused on East Side services.

Conspiracy theorists might suggest that with Northern Rail HQ being in York, this division of resources is somewhat intentional, ensuring the East side operations have the newer and notionally better units!

However this is more likely to be a habit that persists from the British Rail days. Aside from the premier services such as the WCML expresses, the North West has long had to make do with the leftovers and hand-me-downs.

The longer distance and more “premium” services in the North of England (e.g. North & South Trans-Pennine) had historically always been operated by the Eastern Region out of York, with Eastern Region locomotives and rolling stock (something which persisted through to creation of the Transpennine Express franchise). Services run by the Midland Region tended to be shorter distance, potentially slower, more locally focused, and so tended to get the less modern stock.

I’m not saying the local operations in the North West never received stock from new – a good number of Pacers and Class 150/2 “Sprinter” units were allocated here on delivery, but as part of a wider scheme where new trains were rolled out across the BR regional fleet.

So, really, who IS responsible for the mess?

The Rail industry as a whole bears some level of responsibility for this perfect storm, and I extend this to include the relevant bits of Whitehall.

The operators have done the best that they could with a deck that has been stacked against them by vacillating transport strategy coming out of Governments and the DfT.

Franchise re-carves and reshuffles, on-off electrification schemes, no-growth franchise plans, interference in rolling stock distribution.

Pressure from Whitehall to do less with more. This is particularly evident for Network Rail who were told to reduce costs in their train planning functions, which happened, but then led them into attempting one of the most widespread and comprehensive timetable recasts in probably 30 years with an under-resourced planning & timetabling department.

The fact is that successive Governments have manipulated rail investment as a political tool to win votes, rather than having a long-term strategy.

Want to win an election? Promise to electrify. Win the election? “Oh, sorry, that electrification? It’s indefinitely postponed now.” Meanwhile, money is poured into “shiny” schemes.

The lack of a consistent and coherent rail strategy has created such uncertainty for the industry, such that when decisions are made, they seem more like tactical ones, as opposed to long-term strategy.

Furthermore, the fractured nature of the rail industry seems to mean that no-one is prepared to take the tough “executive level” decisions – such as the one which could have allowed operators to roll-forward the pre-May 2018 timetable until the required infrastructure improvements had been turned over, and the rolling stock cascade was assured.

My opinion is that an even bigger storm coming, and no-one is steering the ship.

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