MPs have urged the Department for Transport to treat this summer’s rail network chaos as a “genuine catalyst for change” to address the “inadequate” governance structures that contributed to the crisis.
The chaos that followed a botched timetable change in May and disrupted travel for thousands of passengers this summer was “in part a consequence of the astonishing complexity” of the UK’s railway – a “fragmented, over-complicated system with competing contractual interests” with little clear accountability, according to a report from the Transport Select Committee yesterday.
In the report, the committee backed the findings of a report published by the Office of Rail and Road in September, that the rail chaos was a “collective, system-wide failure”, across the rail industry, DfT, the ORR and publicly-owned infrastructure.
“We endorse the ORR’s finding that ‘no one took charge’; this is extraordinary and totally unacceptable,” the committee said.
The committee said establishing effective governance and decision-making structures to oversee the implementation of future routine timetable changes, the first of which will happen this month, should be the “immediate priority” in the coming months.
“The governance and decision-making structures overseen by the secretary of state and the Department of Transport were inadequate: lines of accountability failed; were not sufficiently clear; or simply did not exist,” it said.
The industry and Network Rail, the government owned company that manages the rail network, have adopted a “more cautious approach” to the December timetable change, the report said, adding that DfT should “use this period of relative stability to re-assess the effects of the May 2018 timetable change”.
As part of this assessment, the committee said DfT should work to identify rail stations that have lost a significant number of services, especially at peak times. The department should, alongside Network Rail and train operators and with input from passengers, “design mitigations that better meet the needs of people travelling to and from the worst-affected stations”, the report added.
Other changes called for in the report include greater public consultation by industry on future service changes, and a switch to an automatic or automated compensation scheme for passengers whose journeys have been delayed.
The transport regulator also came under fire in the report, which said “the Office of Rail and Road missed chances to sound the alarm; a more confident, independent and effective regulator may have been able to avert the crisis".
Transport secretary Chris Grayling, who is the “apex of the system”, also bore some responsibility for this summer’s events, it said. “We acknowledge that the secretary of state was not fully informed of serious problems, but he should have been more proactive,” he said.
Responding to the report, a Department for Transport spokesperson said: “We have already worked with the industry to deliver special compensation schemes on Northern, TransPennine Express and [Govia Thameslink Railway], which provides the equivalent of up to 8% of the cost of an annual season ticket for those most severely impacted.
“The disruption following the May timetable change demonstrated that significant change is required in the rail industry," they added, noting that the department has launched an independent review of the rail network led by former British Airways chief executive Keith Williams.
The select committee’s report was published the same day as DfT announced the steps it was taking to hold GTR to account for its “unacceptable performance” over the summer.
The operator will be allowed to retain its franchise until the planned end date of September 2021 but would not be allowed to retain any profit from it this financial year, Grayling said in a statement.
“The department has concluded that a termination of the franchise would cause further and undue disruption for passengers and is not an appropriate course of action,” he said.
GTR’s profits will also be capped for the remainder of the franchise, Grayling said, and DfT will closely monitor its performance in future – particularly during the upcoming December timetable change.
“These measures do not make GTR immune from further sanctions in the event of any subsequent failure to perform,” he added.