Rail timetable chaos must be the catalyst for genuine change, MPs say

The transport committee has today published its findings into a summer of rail timetable chaos, in which it concludes the crisis was partly due to the “astonishing complexity” of a fragmented railway which could not cope with the scale of change.

The damning paper highlights how governance and decision-making processes “were not fit for purpose” and a system-wide failure across Network Rail, the privately-owned train operating companies, the Department for Transport and the Office of Road and Rail was to blame.

While acknowledging that changes to the national rail timetable happen each May and December and are often relatively minor tweaks, last May saw an unprecedented timetable overhaul after major infrastructure works, involving 43,200 individual changes and affecting 46% of passenger services.

This meant its implementation was chaotic and resulted in inconvenient, costly and potentially dangerous disruption for passengers across the north of England and in London and the south, according to MPs. With commuters’ experiences of UK railways seemingly at a new low, the committee says that only genuine change will restore peoples’ trust. 

What the transport committee would like to see moving forward:

  • Immediate priority must be to establish effective oversight of next national rail timetable changes
  • Rail timetabling process requires genuinely independent oversight
  • Worst-affected 2018 season ticket holders should receive a discount on 2019 season tickets, equivalent to the price rise announced on 30 November
  • Effective contingency plans for disabled passengers and stringent enforcement
  • Events demonstrate overwhelming case for automated, or automatic compensation schemes

Transport secretary Chris Grayling has come under fire too as the report says while he did not have all the information required to step in, ultimately it was Grayling who had the authority to judge the trade-offs between competing commercial interests and should have taken measures to avert the crisis by halting implementation.

Chair of the transport committee, Lilian Greenwood, said it was “extraordinary and totally unacceptable” that no-one took charge of the situation earlier this year.

“Instead of experiencing the benefits of much-needed investment in our railways, around one in five passengers experienced intensely inconvenient and costly disruption to their daily lives,” Greenwood added. “There was extraordinary complacency about protecting the interests of passengers, who were very badly let down.”

The MP also pointed to the recent announcement that fare rises averaging 3.1% in 2019 only went to “add insult to passengers’ injury”.

But on the same day as the scathing report, the transport secretary has also revealed that Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) will be contributing £15m towards tangible improvements for passengers. This is in addition to the £15 million the operator has already contributed towards compensation for passengers since the May timetable disruption.

While even conceding that performance by the franchise after the May timetable change was “unacceptable”, the Department for Transport claims that a termination of the franchise would cause “further and undue disruption for passengers” and is not an appropriate course of action.

Transport officials have also been clear that these measures do not make GTR “immune from further sanctions” in the event of any subsequent failure to perform. The department says it will continue to monitor closely the performance of GTR, particularly during the upcoming December timetable change.

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