Implementation of a national timetable recast has led to major disruption to some of Britain’s largest passenger operators, with routes in northern England especially acutely affected.

UK: It was supposed to be a brave new dawn. May 20 saw one of the most ambitious attempts to recast the UK’s national timetable for several decades in order to exploit the planned completion of major infrastructure enhancements, including the Thameslink Programme in southeast England and electrification in the northwest.

To say the recast has not gone entirely smoothly would be an understatement in the extreme. Arguably passenger services at Arriva’s Northern franchise have been most seriously affected, with wholesale cancellations essentially amounting to an unplanned suspension of services on some routes, especially around Manchester.

Amid mounting political pressure, notably from the recently elected mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham, Northern introduced what it termed an ‘emergency timetable’ on June 4. This removes 6% of the operator’s services until the end of July. Northern says it has cut around 165 out of its 2 800 daily trains in order to ‘stabilise the timetable and reduce the need for last-minute cancellations’.

Lakes cut off

Northern expects its temporary timetable to be in place for around eight weeks. Some substantial cuts have been required to release drivers to cover the busiest services; these include a suspension of all trains between Oxenholme and Windermere, an important link for tourists visiting the Lake District National Park. Trains will be replaced by a combination of ‘express luxury coaches’, minibuses for intermediate journeys and taxis for schoolchildren. Other rural routes will also be ‘thinned out’, including Leeds – Lancaster and Blackpool South – Colne. Off-peak trains on several routes largely radiating from Manchester will also be scaled back.

The temporary timetable coincides with the closure of most of Liverpool Lime Street station for two months as part of a remodelling programme. According to the operator, its plan should release around 16 drivers to support an enhanced training programme.

Enhancements run late

The root cause of the disruption has been a shortage of suitably trained drivers able to deliver the new timetable over revised infrastructure. So acute is the shortage that Northern has reportedly been routinely terminating trains part way through their journey as existing drivers reach the limit of their route knowledge. Passengers have reportedly seen services advertised on departure screens until moments before the train is due to arrive, when they are suddenly removed.

Railway Gazette understands that the principal cause of the driver shortage is a late request from Network Rail, in its System Operator role, for Northern to withdraw its May 20 timetable and resubmit it with changes. Behind this change request was the late completion of electrification and resignalling of the Preston – Blackpool route, and continuing delay to the electrification work between Manchester and Preston via Bolton.

This had initially been due for completion by December 2016, but was delayed until December 2017, further postponed until May 2018 and now delayed again until December 2018. Industry insiders are expressing doubts over whether even this timescale can be met as work is still well behind schedule. NR’s outgoing Chief Executive Mark Carne is understood not to have been informed about the request to Northern to re-submit its timetable, and he only became aware of it once the service began to collapse.

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, who has received a barrage of criticism from local media outlets in northern England for perceived indifference to rail disruption outside the southeast, said in a letter to MPs that ‘the industry collectively has failed the passengers it serves’. In particular, he singled out NR for its failure to adequately handle the volume of train planning tasks required to deliver the May timetable changes.

In response, Carne has written to NR staff apologising for the disruption to passengers, but also seeking to defend the infrastructure manager’s planning and timetabling teams. ‘Reports you might read that seek to attribute blame solely to NR misunderstand the complexity of our industry and encourage division that can only undermine public trust in the railway’, Carne wrote. ‘At such a challenging time, I want to praise our timetable and planning colleagues who have worked hard to deliver the new timetable for the industry.’ However, it is notable that Carne’s letter did not explicitly seek to defend NR’s infrastructure delivery team. According to Northern, the May 20 timetable was developed over just four months rather than the nine to 12 months typically required for less ambitious recasts.

Trade union dispute

Northern’s service delivery efforts have been further hampered by the refusal of drivers’ union ASLEF to enter into a new Rest Day Working agreement, which would resolve many of the immediate staffing issues and allow Northern to move ahead more quickly with training programmes. The action by ASLEF is linked to a demand for a three year pay package which would see its members receive a significant increase in their salary. ASLEF has declined to put a counter-offer from the operator to its members.

Reflecting on its staff challenges, Northern Managing Director David Brown explained that the operator ‘actually has more drivers than we need to run a full timetable in normal circumstances. We currently have 180 more than when we started the franchise’ in April 2016.

Promising an inquiry into the problems at both Northern and Govia Thameslink Railway, Grayling said that he had asked Carne’s successor Andrew Haines to ensure timetabling arrangements are improved in future. ‘I will insist on a gradual approach wherever possible and not the significant changes we have seen this month.’

Ordsall discord

When the Ordsall Chord opened in December last year, it was heralded as a ‘missing link’ in rail connectivity between Manchester’s two principal stations, Piccadilly and Victoria. Yet in practice, opening of the short south-to-east curve has only served to expose the fragility of the rest of the double-track corridor through Manchester Piccadilly and south towards the city’s airport, which is among the most intensively used sections of the national network.

This fragility, combined with the disruption caused by staff shortages and infrastructure enhancement delays, is now having a significant impact on inter-city operator TransPennine Express. On May 29, the operator effectively withdrew its trains from the Ordsall Chord, asking NR to reroute its Middlesbrough – Manchester Airport services to reverse at Piccadilly, as they had done for many years before December. Industry insiders report a ‘consistent theme of infrastructure being unable to cope with the volume of trains’.

The problems reflect long-standing concerns among operators about the decision to defer construction of an extra pair of tracks and two more through platforms at Manchester Piccadilly under the long-planned Northern Hub proposals. Initially intended to complement the Ordsall Chord, this work was subsequently deferred by NR as part of its review into enhancement overruns during Control Period 5.

NR is understood to have advised the Transport Secretary that it believed an enhanced timetable through the central Manchester core could be supported ‘on a good day’ without additional infrastructure. Neither TPE nor Northern appear to agree with NR, and there are mounting concerns about capacity and reliability when more services are due to be introduced in December.