RAIL 801: Network Rail’s Flying fiasco

Back in 1999 a very polite RAIL reader visited me in my Peterborough office (which back then overlooked the East Coast Main Line) and asked for my opinion and advice.

“I’m thinking of starting a steam railtour company,” he said. “Do you think it’s a good idea and should I go ahead with it?”

I said I normally didn’t give advice but I’d make an exception. If he wanted to sleep at night, not lose money and avoid massive stress he should find something else to do. I reminded him that the easiest way to make a small fortune running steam excursions is to start with a large one!

That RAIL reader was Marcus Robertson, and he went on to launch Steam Dreams, of which he is still chairman. Our 1999 exchange certainly sprang to mind afresh on Friday May 13, when at the eleventh hour and 59th minute Network Rail cancelled the weekend’s sold-out Scottish jaunts by Gresley ‘A3’ 60103 Flying Scotsman (aka ‘the most famous steam locomotive in the world’) because it claimed it had not had sufficient time to carry out essential ‘gauging’ work. NR had not finished the simple but important task of checking whether Scotsman would fit through bridges, platforms and tunnels.

In a rather casual, blasé statement issued shortly before 1700 on Friday, NR wrecked an exciting weekend of days out for hundreds of people - either from Edinburgh and over the Forth Bridge (the 39 Steps resonance was strong!) into Fife, or a trip over the newly re-opened ‘Borders’ route. 

News and social media - and Scottish politicians - all went into meltdown about this out-of-the-blue and damaging (for NR) announcement. The whole saga says a very great deal about Network Rail. Indeed, I believe it represents something of a watershed for NR.

Marcus Robertson was in touch with RAIL throughout that dramatic weekend, and he was keen to tell his story. You’ll find his first-hand account on pages 12-15.

So let’s sift fact from urban myth. According to my sources, this problem did not emanate from NR Scotland - the failure to carry out gauging approval was thought to be a failure at NR’s national headquarters at Milton Keynes. NR Scotland - just like everyone else, including NR Managing Director ScotRail Alliance Phil Verster, Chairman Sir Peter Hendy, Chief Executive Mark Carne and Head of Media Kevin Groves - was informed of the cancellations only on Friday evening, ‘after the event’. This failure is a damning management cock-up, given that train details had been submitted, according to the NR rules, 12 weeks in advance. 

The story that took root very quickly on the Saturday (May 14) is that public agitation, media pressure - and especially crusading criticism by Scottish Transport Minister Derek Mackay - forced NR into a humiliating U-turn as a consequence of pressure from Holyrood. Flying Scotsman was able to run into Fife and the Borders after all. Hurrah! To say NR looked stupid is an understatement.

I don’t blame the SNP (Scottish National Party) for making this tub-thumping claim, because it’s what politicians do. But it isn’t what happened and it is very important to understand what really occurred, because it is especially illuminating about the way NR is not only changing quickly at the moment under Hendy and Carne but also about how much more it needs to (and must) change.

In reality, by the time the politicians and media were beating the drum, Verster, Hendy and Carne were already ‘on the case’. Within a couple of hours of the cancellation announcement, plans were in place for a
telephone conference call shortly after dawn on Saturday morning, at which Verster (I understand) demanded the relevant Milton Keynes managers be present, armed with all the data he needed to send Scottish staff out with tape measures to physically measure the known tight spots. That was done, gauging was approved, and all the trains ran as planned. Yes, the political pressure from the SNP played its part in keeping NR’s ‘feet to the fire’ after the event - but it is important to
recognise what happened here as an insight into changing culture at the very top of NR.

To me, the most appalling aspect is that relatively senior managers actually thought that it was OK to do this, so late and in such complacent terms - and that it would all blow over. It says a great deal about how some managers do not take charters seriously. It speaks of an operational arrogance towards this admittedly marginal - but very high profile - aspect of train operating. Other NR managers would do well to take note. We regularly receive complaints here from charter operators and their passengers about how NR signallers loop and sideline charters for hours on end, affording little priority and even less respect to these paying passengers whose fate can command damaging headlines. All the evidence is that NR, from top to bottom, hasn’t afforded charters much priority.

NR now has a chairman who both understands railways and (crucially) understands PR and the way the railway is perceived by public and media. NR also has a CEO who shares these views and is prepared to manage accordingly. The lesson to NR managers
everywhere is painfully clear.

Marcus Robertson makes clear the litany of difficulties the steam charter business is routinely subjected to by NR - from late or non-existent timings and trains signed off over track that does not exist, to major payments still not handed over after 30 months because “there is no machinery for making such a payment”. 

There is one area where Marcus is wrong: it is NOT a privilege for steam to operate on the main line. Steam has a right to be there, enshrined in legislation and regulation. Yes, charter operators have to behave professionally - but so does NR. Charters might be low revenue, but this incident proves they are very high risk for NR reputationally.

Common sense and customer priority need to be the guiding principles for everyone, but NR’s culture in the past has not reflected this. Now it must - and in all things, too. Main line TOCs tell similar stories of complacency, inflexibility and arrogance in their dealings with NR.

Hendy, Carne and Verster have, to their credit, proved that this approach is no longer acceptable. This changed culture needs to now be applied to all decisions, from steam locomotive gauging clearances to pointless and expensive footbridge renewals at Gainsborough Central and Brigg.

Phil Verster’s Scottish team achieved overnight what others failed to do in three months. Worse, these others thought this dire performance was acceptable. And while Hendy, Carne and Verster did indeed pull the irons out of the fire at the last minute, this was a structure which they had also presided over and for which they are responsible and accountable.

Lessons all round, I’d say.

Comment: RAIL 801: May 25 2016 - June 7 2016

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