RAIL 830: Time for change at the DfT

Governments never seem to learn that bad news never improves with age: best to get it out there, deal with any ‘flak’ and move on. Sit on it and not only do the problems of that news worsen, you also run the risk of triggering conspiracists’ accusations of ‘a cover-up’. 

So it was with Chris Gibb’s report into  Southern’s problems: it was infamous even before it appeared. Rumours swirled of its alleged damning verdict on a Government seeking to defer, deflect and avoid the criticism allegedly unleashed on it by its author, experienced career railwayman Chris Gibb. It was a mistake for Government to delay publication and ramp up such fevered speculation.

When it finally appeared, critics pounced on the redaction of Appendix 9 (another mistake). Yet Gibb’s superb report tells us little that we did not already know. It is impressive: a compelling, clear, articulate, expert insight which identifies SR’s problems before offering concise, informed and workable recommendations. Gibb is to be congratulated for leaving no piece of ballast unturned: new trains, old trains, timetabling, white space in timetables, off peak/peak services, night maintenance, day closures, competing services, station upgrades, availability of shelters….you name it, Gibb discusses it. Philip Haigh does a masterful distillation of Gibb’s report (pages 6 to 9); now I must draw some conclusions. 

First, Government made a huge mistake in sitting on this report and succeeded in denying light, increasing heat and allowing critics to use inflammtory words like “suppression”.

But I can see why the DfT was reluctant to publish. Gibb not only succinctly gets to the heart of SR’s problems, he also perfectly validates the arguments I’ve been making on this page over the last few issues - urging franchising reform and the establishment (most easily accomplished as part of a reformed NR) of a guiding mind for rail. 

Gibb very neatly summarises the key problems: all of which track back to the DfT. Sure, SR has handled the strike abysmally - its heavy-handed, ham-fisted and sometimes downright childish approach made the problem worse. But it wasn’t the cause - it was trying to deliver the government-specified contract for DOO. Yes, the strike over door operation was the trigger for the SR meltdown and the union’s behaviour and approach has been as bad as SR’s. But the strike was no more than the straw that broke a weary camel’s back. The strike kicked over a fragile system. Here are some of the key reasons for that fragility:

The timetable was so stressed that it could only work successfully if staff, trains and infrastructure all worked perfectly.

Poor-quality and unreliable SR infrastructure has been declining in reliability for decades as a result of increasing usage and decreasing access for maintenance. 

Daytime access was routinely refused, so engineers stopped asking, waiting until something broke - they then caused chaos fixing it. 

Night-time access has been squeezed because the three TOCs forming GTR had previously run competing services which became enshrined in the new combined franchise. Gibb recommends scrapping two thirds of these competing, largely unused services. Depots are in the wrong place and poorly configured for today, ensuring many night-time empty stock movements.

Too few drivers at start of franchise. Gibb reports that one bidder received DfT feedback that they had too many drivers in their bid.

Too many trains leave up to 20 seconds late which, magnified across many trains, creates huge delay. This is partly because train/station clocks do not show the same times!

GTR rosters crews using software which assumes every train runs on time, so some trains are rostered to change drivers three times en route to London. More drivers would make SR less efficient, but the system would be more efficient, says Gibb. DfT franchising focuses on bid efficiency, not system efficiency.   

Too many off-peak services. At Newhaven, there are two trains per hour, in each direction, all day. Gibb says: “But hardly anyone appears to use and the platform is full of weeds.” Similar problems exist at Normans Bay, Warnham, Southease, Ashurst, Bishopstone and Amberley. Says Gibb: “Each train that doesn’t stop can potentially recover 2-3 minutes of late running and across many services this will collectively improve the chances of punctual running in the evening peak.” Gibb also points out that so many off-peak services run through the day that recovering from a disruptive incident before 1400 for the evening peak is impossible. He suggests a ‘firebreak’ in services mid-afternoon to ensure recovery and allow for crew changes.

NR/GTR performance is measured in all day metrics, with no peak priority. Given that SR’s main job is to get people to and from work and school in the peaks and that 10% of its trains carry 35% of all passengers, Gibb is right that peaks should be prioritised. “This sounds obvious, but it is not the case...The rail industry is focused too much on train punctuality at destination and not on passenger punctuality on their journey.”

A deeply flawed ticket strategy which causes overcrowding on the cheapest trains.

...and so it goes on. Let’s  be clear. Clocks on stations and trains telling different times is not a structural problem. Neither is an unworkable timetable. A franchise procedure which leads to too few drivers is not structural, it’s about DfT policy. Trains routinely leaving 20 seconds late has nothing to do with public ownership…I’m sure you get the gist.

Each and every one of these problems could be resolved by more focused DfT decision-making. Yes, SR screwed up. No, Gibb does not support striking unions, which he says should take a more mature approach of engagement with the fragile system, rather than kicking it over. But his implication is equally clear: the railway’s fragility is a result of DfT policy.

Bluntly, the DfT doesn’t understand the railway system intimately enough. It needs help from an expert guiding mind - which it could create at Network Rail. But there is an important caveat here: if you put the factory in charge it will do what’s right for the factory and so the NR we see today cannot do this job as it stands. It could, however, with intelligent reform. What about ORR? The DfT is currently ‘marking its own homework’ by policing its own franchises. An ORR prepared to ‘take on’ DfT could help make it work: but this is not today’s ORR. Reform is needed there.

Finally, before I trigger the wrath of other campaigners, I concentrate here on the overall system and its basic service. Rest assured, we shall be returning to disabled access. 

Weaknesses highlighted by Gibb are fixable through franchise specification, improved DfT engagement and focused monitoring. 

We don’t need to restructure to ensure that our clocks tell the same time, or that trains depart punctually in a viable timetable.

Comment: RAIL 830: July 5 - July 18 2017

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