'Nobody took charge': DfT partly to blame for rail chaos, says regulator

The transport secretary said the rail industry had "struggled to deliver" as he launched a major review ahead of the ORR's final report.

Photo: PA

The Department for Transport is partly to blame for railway timetabling chaos in May, according to a report that found “nobody took charge” of dealing with problems that affected thousands of passengers.

An interim report published today by the Office of Rail and Road said the department was too quick to take rail operators at their word when they said they could introduce major timetable changes without significant delays.

The report was published the same day as the Department for Transport launched a review of Britain’s railways, partly in response to the May delays that left thousands of passengers stranded amid frequent cancellations in London and the North of England.


The rail operators Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), Network Rail and Northern also shared responsibility for the disruption as they noticed problems emerging with timetable changes but failed to “take sufficient action to manage the risks or the consequences”, the ORR said.

It became apparent months before the changes were implemented that the project was in trouble, but neither the rail operators nor DfT took charge of dealing with problems, it said. “The present industry arrangements do not support clarity of decision making: it was unclear who was responsible for what,” according to the report, which was published as part of a review led by ORR chair Stephen Glaister into the failed introduction of the revised schedules.

GTR had predicted as early as 2016 that it would not have enough drivers trained in time to deliver the services and worked to mitigate this. “GTR remained confident in its ability to operate services with only limited disruption, and was surprised in the final days that these mitigations were insufficient,” said the report.

The delays that ensued were partly the fault of DfT’s Thameslink Programme management boards, which failed to adequately stress test GTR’s plans, the ORR said.

The DfT also failed to take into account how the delivery of infrastructure projects including the Thameslink Programme could affect the new timetable, the report said. The DfT commissioned advice on the implementation of the programme – which includes station, track and signalling improvements to allow up to 24 trains to run per hour across London – when planning for the May timetable was already well underway.

DfT opted in October 2017 to ramp up services in a phased approach, beginning with 18 trains per hour rather than 24 to ensure their reliability. This meant GTR had to bid again for a “substantial rewrite of the timetable… creating significant pressure on the timetable process and the system operator”.

Responding to the report, the DfT said it was "working with the industry to ensure that such disruption never happens again.

“As a result of this disruption, we took immediate action to improve services and passenger information, and to establish industry-funded compensation schemes," a spokesperson said. "We also set up the independent Glaister Review to understand the causes and ensure those responsible are held to account, and we look forward to its final report at the end of the year."

Hours before the report was published Chris Grayling, the transport secretary, announced his department's “root and branch” review, led by former British Airways chief executive Keith Williams

The review will be “the most significant since privatisation” of the railways, the DfT said. It said the rail industry has failed to keep pace with growth in passenger numbers and has “struggled to deliver for passengers”.

An expert panel will examine how to improve the government’s franchising strategy by bringing track and trains operations closer together to reduce disruption and improve accountability. It will also look at how to use novel technology and approaches to improve services and value for money. The review comes after MPs concluded the DfT bears some responsibility for the failure of the Virgin East Court rail franchise as officials set unrealistic benchmarks when putting the service out to tender and then insufficiently stress tested the bids.

Williams will deliver his report next year, taking into account the findings of Glaister's final ORR report, which is due at the end of this year. The DfT will then introduce a set of reforms based on his findings from 2020.

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