The May timetable changes have caused extreme disruption to passengers on Northern Rail and Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), with some commuters reported to have lost jobs as a result. Many claim that Britain’s railways have never failed their passengers so badly before.

The sad irony is that the May timetable was to provide significant improvements, made possible by the completion of a huge investment programme. Hence, it had four times as many changes as previous timetables. Many competent experienced individuals were involved in the preparation and delivery of this timetable. Yet no one anticipated the impending debacle until a week or so beforehand.

Headlines such as “Rail Chaos Fury” did not exaggerate. Understandably, politicians demanded answers, some of which came from a recent House of Commons Transport Committee’s hearing.

This highlighted the complex nature of large-scale timetable changes on a crowded railway and the interaction between different train operators’ timetables. Yet, in this situation, train operators found themselves having to produce amended timetables in 16 weeks instead of the usual 40 weeks. These were finalised days before the introduction of the new timetable. Only then was it appreciated that, whilst there were sufficient drivers, their locations and skillsets could not deliver the timetable requirements.

On GTR, the late timetable changes were due to changed DfT requirements and the decision to phase the introduction of the 24 trains per hour Thameslink service over a longer period, which ironically had been intended to reduce the risk from trying to do too much when the timetable changed.

Late-running projects were the cause of both Northern’s late timetable rewrite and its inability to resource the May timetable. In January, it was announced that the Bolton line electrification (originally scheduled for December 2016) would not be completed by May as planned. This required Northern to change its rolling stock plans at short notice and undertake additional driver training.

The 19-week Blackpool electrification blockade, scheduled for completion in March, overran by three weeks. As a result, 450 drivers had to relearn their route knowledge, adding two thousand training days to an already demanding training programme.

No doubt the reasons for these project delays will be subject to further scrutiny. Questions also need to be asked about mitigation measures to minimise the impact of potential overruns. For example, did the Blackpool blockade have contingency arrangements to avoid expiry of the driver’s route competence and could notification of the Bolton electrification overrun have been given earlier? It seems it should have been, as recent advice is that the Bolton line will not now be electrified until November.

Whilst the intricacies of producing and delivering the timetable are not usually a concern for rail engineers, they need to understand the potential impact of their projects on the process. This would seem to be one of the lessons from the May timetable failure which must never happen again.

When the timetable issues are eventually resolved, the capacity benefits from the huge investment programme will be realised. Notwithstanding the timetable debacle, it is right to celebrate the suppliers that deliver these projects. As Stewart Thorpe describes, the 2018 Rail Partnership Awards did just that as Network Rail worked in partnership with Rail Media to recognise those delivering a better railway.

Over the two May bank holidays, work to the value of £168 million was delivered to enhance and improve the railway. Nigel Wordsworth shows how project teams took advantage of these long weekends to deliver a wide variety of work.

This included ongoing remodelling and resignalling work at and around Derby station prior to an eleven-week blockade starting in July. Peter Stanton explains the complexity of this work and the collaboration needed to deliver it. In September it will be fifteen years since the opening of Britain’s first high-speed railway to the Channel Tunnel. As Chris Parker describes, this is now starting to require track renewals for which a novel approach is required.

With the next five-year control period, CP6, starting next year, Marc Johnson explains the process to determine the funds available for renewal and enhancement work and how the ORR’s draft determination broadly supports Network Rail’s proposals to spend £47.8 billion over CP6. In a separate feature, Graham Coombs describes arrangements for funding station improvements.

Services on the Wales and Borders rail franchise are set to be transformed with the award of a 15-year £5 billion contract to KeolisAmey. Grahame Taylor reveals how all trains will be replaced by 2023, with new ones provided by CAF, Stadler and Vivarail. Another recent train order was the £15 billion contract awarded to Siemens for 94 Piccadilly line trains. As Malcolm Dobell explains, these will be the first articulated tube trains.

Although Britain has a good level crossing safety record, more needs to be done to reduce this risk, which can be eliminated where crossings can be closed. We show the various options that enable a crossing to be closed.

The closed 2,501-yard Queensbury tunnel is the subject of Graeme Bickerdike’s article, which shows there is a good economic case to re-open it as a cycle path. It would be good to see redundant rail infrastructure used in this way. If so, this would be one project that would not have to consider timetable implications.


Read more: Rail Engineer July 2018 – An interview with Network Rail’s stations director and the Rail Partnership Awards return