‘Potentially dangerous disruption’: Passengers endured ‘appalling services’ during rail timetable chaos, MPs’ scathing report finds

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“Around a fifth of rail passengers have suffered appalling services and been very badly let down by the whole system” – so says the Transport Select Committee in its scathing report on the botched introduction of new timetables in May.

“The statistics cannot do justice to the severe effects on people’s lives,” say the cross-party committee of MPs, chaired by Labour’s Lilian Greenwood. 

“Businesses and local economies suffered. Children were late for school. Anxiety about getting to and from work put a considerable strain on people’s mental health.

“At points it was not clear that significant portions of the railway were operating to any timetable at all.“

Ms Greenwood said: “There was extraordinary complacency about protecting the interests of passengers, who were very badly let down.”

Everyone from the transport secretary to the train operators knew the May 2018 timetable changes were unprecedented in their complexity. The rail industry had adopted a “big bang” approach to bringing in new schedules in southeast and northern England, affecting 46 per cent of rail passengers. The move was portrayed as a great leap forward.

But within hours of the timetable change taking effect, the plans descended into chaos, with severe delays and wholesale cancellations.

In the weeks following 20 May, Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), covering much of London and the southeast, failed to run one in eight of its planned 3,880 daily services.

One in nine services on Arriva Rail North, which operates Northern rail services, did not run. TransPennine Express passengers were also badly affected.

Even now many commuters have a worse service than before the schedule changes.

This is the backdrop for unprecedented criticism by MPs on the cross-party Transport Select Committee.

One in five UK rail passengers “experienced extreme inconvenience and costly, stressful and sometimes dangerous disruption to their daily lives”, the report says.

“People who rely on our railways have been very badly let down by the whole system, including Network Rail, the train operating companies, the Department for Transport (DfT) and the Office of Rail and Road (ORR).

“We endorse the ORR’s finding that ‘nobody took charge’; this is extraordinary and totally unacceptable.”

The root of the fiasco was “the astonishing complexity of a fragmented railway in which interrelated private train companies, operating on publicly-owned and managed infrastructure, have competing commercial interests”.

Network Rail’s infrastructure project teams and the train operators were guilty of “an indefensible optimism bias” in believing the new timetables would work well.

The transport secretary, Chris Grayling, “is responsible for the structure of the system that controls and runs our railways”, says the report, and therefore it was unreasonable for him “to absolve himself of all responsibility”.

“We acknowledge that the secretary of state was not fully informed of serious problems, but he should have been more proactive.”

The board of the rail regulator, the Office of Rail and Road, “never held a substantive discussion on Thameslink and the largest timetable change in many years”, says the report – adding: “We found this extraordinary.”

Confusion in overcrowded stations caused by last-minute cancellations and platform changes subjected passengers to “uncontrolled risks”.

“Effective communication broke down. The situation was chaotic.”

Disabled passengers were particularly hard hit, with witnesses telling MPs “using parts of the railway became simply impossible”.

The committee has demanded punitive fines on train operators who fail to provide appropriate care for disabled travellers during disruption.

The MPs have also called for season-ticket holders who were worst affected to be excused the annual fares rise. Ticket prices are due to increase by an average of 3.1 per cent from 2 January 2019.

The report says the system for “delay repay” refunds should be made much easier to obtain: “The government must now set a measurable target for implementation of ‘one click’ automated compensation schemes on commuter rail routes.”

A DfT spokesperson said: “We have already worked with the industry to deliver special compensation schemes on Northern, TransPennine Express and GTR, which provides the equivalent of up to 8 per cent 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. That is why we launched the Williams review to consider all parts of the industry in order to put passengers first, with reforms to begin from 2020.”

Patrick Verwer, the new chief executive of Govia Thameslink Railway, said: “We are very sorry for the disruption the May timetable caused.

“Since July, services on Thameslink and Great Northern have become more stable and reliable. Next week [Sunday 9 December] we will begin to introduce 200 mainly off-peak services to complete the phased roll-out of the May weekday timetable, bringing the total number of daily weekday services to 3,600.”

Robert Nisbet, regional director at the Rail Delivery Group, which represents Network Rail and the train operators, said: “We are learning the lessons from the unacceptable disruption in May and this report will be an important contribution.

“While we are truly sorry for what happened this summer, our ambition remains to deliver thousands of new trains and extra services, improving journeys for customers and helping grow the economy.”

The most damning sentence in the report concludes: “Far from marking the intended substantial improvement for rail passengers across the north and in London and the south of England, the 20 May national rail timetable change and the weeks that followed will live long in the memories of a large proportion of rail users as a prolonged period of intensely inconvenient, costly and, on occasions, potentially dangerous disruption.”

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