An inquiry into the chaos that left rail passengers stranded following the introduction of a new timetable in May has found that there were failures at every step of the process leading up to the deadline.

The report released today following a three-month inquiry headed up by Office of Rail and Road (ORR) chairman Stephen Glaister says Network Rail, Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), Northern, the Department for Transportation (DfT) and the ORR itself made mistakes that ‘contributed to the collapse of services’.

When the timetable was introduced on 20 May, services across the country experienced disruption, with Northern and GTR’s franchises the worst affected. In the following weeks, passengers were left with uncertainty over whether their trains would be running on any given day, with many reporting they were in danger of losing their jobs and had missed important family obligations due to the cancellations and delays caused by the failure.

The ORR’s report claims nobody was willing to take charge of the situation and “there is an apparent gap in industry responsibility and accountability”.

Glaister says the ORR started its investigation back in February “when it became apparent Network Rail would fail to publish a final timetable 12 weeks in advance”, a measure put in place to ensure train companies have time to develop driver and staff rosters.

He also admits that the ORR could have done its part to raise concern over whether operators would have time to implement the new timetable.

The inquiry took into account the infrastructure projects that led up to the timetable change and found that “had different decisions been taken” at various steps in the process, the disruption could have been “avoided or significantly mitigated”.

It says a “bow-wave of risk” in the interdependent projects meant that delays in one component “were quickly passed to others”. Specifically, it points to a delay in the electrification of lines in the North West and a late decision to re-plan the introduction of new Thameslink services – both incidents that occurred in the autumn of 2017, at least six months before the new timetable came into effect.

The inquiry found four key failings at every level that contributed to the problems, including:

  • Network Rail’s system operator, who managed the timetable process, was in the best position to spot risks but failed to take sufficient action, particularly in autumn 2017.
  • Neither Northern nor GTR were prepared for the challenges involved in delivering the timetable and “did not do enough to provide accurate information to passengers once disruption occurred”.
  • The DfT and ORR did not sufficiently test the assurances they received from the industry about the risk of disruption, despite having the information and powers to do so.
  • The industry’s “process for planning and managing major timetable changes do not adequately manage the risk arising from the engineering and other projects on which they depend, or prioritise the impact on passengers when making decisions about these risks”.

The report comes after the ORR reported rail delays in the 12 months to August were the worst for 12 years. As passengers prepare for a 3.2 per cent increase in regulated fares in 2019, the pressure is on for the government and the industry to improve services.

The ORR will now move on to phase two of the inquiry, which will produce a final report on the cause of the disruption and give recommendations for avoiding a similar situation with future timetable changes.

The DfT has welcomed the report, saying the disruption experienced was “unacceptable”. The government is launching a review of the rails, being hailed as the most significant look at the industry since privatisation, which will be spearheaded by former British Airways boss Keith Williams.

Transport secretary Chris Grayling said: “It is clear that the structure we inherited is no longer fit to meet today’s challenges and cope with increasing customer demand.

“We’ve been clear that the railway needs reform to prioritise its passengers, and we have set out plans for closer partnerships. But as part of our vision for the future of mobility, we need to go further and more quickly to get the best from the public and private sectors and deliver the railway we need for the 21st century.”

Read the full ORR report here

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