Chaos on the railways: Transport secretary could have done more to avert crisis say MPs

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling should have been more proactive in preventing this year’s train timetable chaos, according to MPs.

In a scathing report on May’s timetable changes, the transport select committee said “genuine change” was needed to restore trust in the railways.

Although Mr Grayling had not been fully informed, this could not absolve him of all responsibility, the MPs said.

It was extraordinary that no-one took charge of the situation, they said. Changes to the national rail timetable happen each May and December and are often relatively minor tweaks.

But last May, after major infrastructure works, a far bigger timetable overhaul was introduced, involving 43,200 individual changes and affecting 46% of passenger services.

MPs said its implementation was chaotic and resulted in inconvenient, costly and potentially dangerous disruption for passengers across the north of England and in London and the south.

The chaos was partly caused by the “astonishing complexity” of a fragmented railway in which interrelated private train companies, operating on publicly-owned and managed infrastructure, have competing commercial interests, the report says.

It concludes that no-one took charge. Mr Grayling had the ultimate authority to judge trade-offs between competing commercial interests and he should have been more proactive, the report says.

“There was extraordinary complacency about protecting the interests of passengers, who were very badly let down,” said committee chairwoman Lilian Greenwood. “It is extraordinary, and totally unacceptable, that no-one took charge of the situation.”

Last week’s announcement that¬†rail fares will increase by an average of 3.1%added “insult to passengers’ injury”, said Ms Greenwood.

Mr Grayling has announced a year-long independent rail review, chaired by Keith Williams, deputy chairman of John Lewis Partnership and former chief executive of British Airways.

But MPs said passengers cannot wait that long for lessons to be learned and reforms implemented. They recommend:

  • The immediate priority must be to establish effective oversight of next national rail timetable changes
  • Rail timetabling process requires genuinely independent oversight
  • Worst-affected 2018 season ticket holders should receive a discount on 2019 season tickets
  • Effective contingency plans for disabled passengers and stringent enforcement
  • Events demonstrate overwhelming case for automated, or automatic compensation schemes.

Mick Cash, leader of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, described the report as “devastating” and laid the blame on “disastrous fragmentation of our railways” and Mr Grayling.

Anthony Smith, chief executive of watchdog Transport Focus, said: “This industry knows it must deliver a smooth set of changes when the next round of timetable changes takes effect this Sunday.

“They must show they’ve learned lessons after a torrid summer of timetable crisis, and are acting to improve performance.”

A Department for Transport spokesman said: “We have already worked with the industry to deliver special compensation schemes on Northern, TransPennine Express and GTR, which provides the equivalent of up to 8% of the cost of an annual season ticket for those most severely impacted.

“The disruption following the May timetable change demonstrated that significant change is required in the rail industry. That is why we launched the Williams review to consider all parts of the industry in order to put passengers first, with reforms to begin from 2020.”

Govia Thameslink Railway was one of the train operators whose passengers were badly hit during the disruption. Chief executive Patrick Verwer said the firm has already processed compensation claims for 68,000 season ticket-holders, with the deadline for claims extended to 31 January 2019.

He said: “Since July, services on Thameslink and Great Northern have become more stable and reliable.”