Transport secretary blames train timetable fiasco on rail industry and demands ‘culture change’

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The transport secretary has blamed the rail industry for the calamitous introduction of new timetables in May, which disrupted the journeys of millions of commuters. 

Chris Grayling told the Transport Select Committee that he was “less than happy” that assurances the schedules could be successfully introduced were wrong.

Ahead of the introduction of radical new schedules in the London area and northern England, Network Rail promised “more reliable, better connected journeys”. The train operator Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), which runs many services to and through London, bragged of implementing the biggest timetable shake-up in UK rail history.

But within hours of the revised schedules taking effect on Sunday 20 May, cancellations and long delays began.

By the end of the morning rush-hour on 21 May, when the schedules made first contact with the working week, tens of thousands of commuters became aware that their lives would be blighted by delayed and cancelled trains for weeks or months. 

One railway worker said: “People were coming up literally crying because trains had been that delayed, they were going to be late at work, they were going to get the sack.”

The fiasco contributed to the railways’ worst punctuality figures since 2006.

Unlike many trains for which the Department for Transport is ultimately responsible, Chris Grayling arrived early in front of the Transport Select Committee.

He told MPs: “On 2 May I had the chief executive of GTR [Govia Thameslink Railway] in my office saying ”it will be a bumpy start but it will be OK.”

Mr Grayling said that the Industry Readiness Board and the Independent Assurance Panel were set up to ensure the new timetables could be successfully introduced.

“We’ve just seen something similar at Crossrail where ’It’ll be fine,’ then it wasn’t,” he said. 

“There is going to have to be culture change in the industry and the way that these things are done.

“Clear assurances that things are on track, from the people whose job it is to judge these things, haven’t worked.”

The transport secretary said: “It’s not the job of government to run train timetables and restoring of train drivers. But government now has to make sure, given what’s happened, that those whose job it is are doing the job properly.”

The committee chair, Louise Ellman, asked why an official in the Department for Transport had suggested in an email that details of compensation for disrupted rail passengers should not be circulated to the media.

“I’ve no idea,” the transport secretary said.

Meanwhile members of the RMT union working for South Western Railway are beginning a five-day strike about the role of guards.

The general secretary, Mick Cash, said: “South Western Railway has stalled the talks process and has failed to provide any sort of offer that comes close to resolving this dispute which matches the widespread best practice in the industry, underpinned by the guard guarantee. 

“Recent figures have shown a shocking a surge in violence on our railways it is frankly appalling that South Western Railway are looking for a green light to throw the guard off their trains as and when they see fit in the name of profit.”

South Western Railway said: “The RMT has again decided to needlessly disrupt our customers and colleagues with more strikes over the next two months.

“The union has cynically chosen dates with the aim of targeting hard-working commuters, families enjoying the half-term holiday and sports fans to cause as much misery as possible.

“Our plans mean more guards, not fewer and we have guaranteed a guard with safety critical competencies to be rostered on all of our services.”

When the timetable changes were introduced, the RMT union predicted that train operators were “winging it with potentially disastrous consequences”.

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