Saturday, 27 December 2014

Overrunning Engineering Works: A Perfect Storm?

Three words that inevitably strike fear into any rail passenger's heart: "overrunning engineering works". This Christmas, as with every year, Network Rail used the two-day Christmas shutdown to perform essential maintenance and upgrade work on the British railway network. Unfortunately, it didn't all go to plan: the work at Kings Cross station in London has overrun, and on Saturday 27th December there were no trains to and from Kings Cross. This has left passengers between London and Scotland without any direct trains all day.

The Office of Rail Regulation has announced a review into the major disruption to passengers caused by the overrunning engineering work, and not just that at Kings Cross: work at Paddington also overran, although the station was reopened by 2pm on Saturday. Let me try and pre-empt the review, and offer some insight into what happened and why.

First of all, what happened at Kings Cross? There were several sites of engineering work between Kings Cross and Alexandra Palace, just five miles outside London on the East Coast Main Line (ECML). The ECML is undergoing some upgrade works to cope with the extra Thameslink trains that will run on the line from 2018. One of those sites was at Holloway South Junction, between Kings Cross and Finsbury Park, where the overhead electric wires were being renewed; unfortunately it seems that this work has overrun.

How on earth can this have happened? Minor overruns of an hour or two are (unfortunately) not particularly uncommon, but the disruption is usually limited. In this case it's clear that something has gone badly wrong, with the work running nearly 24 hours late. The overall package of works was planned from Christmas Day to Sunday 28th, with just one track into and out of Kings Cross on Saturday and Sunday, and a limited service running all weekend. Unfortunately, not even that one track was available on Saturday.

Whose fault is it? Ultimately, the responsibility for engineering works lies with Network Rail, who own and maintain all the tracks: however, much of the actual work is done by engineering firms working as subcontractors. It may well simply be that the failure of one piece of equipment has made it impossible to complete the works in time; hopefully that detail will come out in the ORR report.

However, Network Rail (and its subcontractors) are largely invisible to the travelling public: they don't run any trains, and they only operate a handful of stations (including Kings Cross). Instead, most of the blame gets heaped on the train operators - in this case,  East Coast and Great Northern, along with the smaller operators Grand Central and Hull Trains.

The operators are really in an impossible situation. On the one hand, they've got thousands of angry passengers who can't get where they want to go, and at this time of year they get accused of "ruining Christmas". On the other hand, they're dependent on Network Rail to provide the tracks they need to run on, and they get told the night before that they can't.

As a result, they have had to scramble to provide any semblance of a service. The first problem was that, while these things are usually planned the night before, there were very few staff in on Boxing Day to do any of the planning. So the service was cobbled together overnight: with Kings Cross shut, East Coast elected to (try and) run a half-hourly service as far south as Finsbury Park, where passengers could change for the Victoria Line for services into London: a perfectly reasonable plan that has been used many times before during planned engineering works on Sundays.

The second problem was a lack of platform capacity. There are 12 platforms at Kings Cross (although only six of those would have been open today). At Finsbury Park, however, there are just two platforms that can be used to turn trains from the north: trains arrive in platform 4, and can either depart from platform 4, or shunt empty to platform 5 and depart from there. With everything running smoothly, this can just about sustain a half-hourly service.

But did it run smoothly? Not a chance. Huge queues started to build up at Finsbury Park from mid-morning, as all passengers who would have travelled out of Kings Cross were advised to head to Finsbury Park. At least twice the station had to be shut due to overcrowding, and as a result there literally wasn't enough room to let people off the trains: as a result a queue of southbound trains built up, with some arriving at Finsbury Park nearly three hours late. This meant that trains heading back north were also delayed, with just five long-distance trains managing to leave Finsbury Park between start of service (at about 10am) and 3pm. During the afternoon the service started to recover, but thousands of journeys were disrupted across the day.

Lots of people are asking: who on earth thought that Finsbury Park was an acceptable substitute for Kings Cross? I can sympathise with their concerns, but there really was no other alternative. There are only so many stations on the ECML with the necessary signalling to terminate trains and send them back north again: the next reasonable alternative would have been Stevenage. Finsbury Park at least had the advantage that people could use the Victoria Line to get to and from Kings Cross. And diverting trains off the ECML onto other lines would have been impossible at short notice, as the drivers wouldn't be cleared to drive on other lines (see here for my earlier post on driver "route knowledge").

So why not just divert the passengers to the trains running on other lines north from London? Sadly, the other main route to Scotland, the West Coast Main Line (WCML) from Euston, was also closed for engineering works at Watford Junction, and will remain closed until Monday morning. The wisdom of closing both the WCML and the ECML - and thus leaving neither major route from London to Scotland open - is certainly questionable, and undoubtedly made the bad situation much worse. The only other line out of London to the north is the Midland Main Line (MML) from St Pancras, which doesn't have as much capacity as the WCML or the ECML (its trains are considerably shorter and less frequent).

Indeed, during the August bank holiday weekend there were also simultaneous closures at Watford and Kings Cross, and that weekend there were horrendous crowds at St Pancras as people tried desperately to head north. But then, at least, Kings Cross remained partially open, with a couple of trains in and out each hour, and passengers mainly got where they were trying to go. With Kings Cross completely shut, that left both the WCML and the ECML at severely reduced capacity.

The fact is, however, that the period between Christmas and New Year is pretty much the only week-long period with very few commuters, and thus the only time to avoid disrupting people's journeys to and from work. Many people who only take the train at Christmas (or a few times a year) come away thinking that the railways never work, precisely because of all the engineering work. But when well over a quarter of ticket revenue is from season ticket holders, the railway can't annoy commuters too much. Ultimately, both the Watford and Kings Cross works needed a four-day block, which is only available at Christmas and Easter. (See here for my earlier post on bank holiday engineering works.)

The other overrunning engineering work, at Paddington, has got rather less attention in the press. The four lines between Paddington and Slough were shut for engineering works over Christmas Day and Boxing Day, and were due to reopen on Saturday morning. Unfortunately, all four lines into Paddington remained firmly shut until 2pm, when two of the lines were reopened. Trains from the west, on the Great Western Main Line (GWML) were instead turned at Reading during the morning. It's not exactly clear what caused the disruption.

What makes the Paddington disruption different to that at Kings Cross? For one, the availability of diversionary routes: passengers between Reading and London can use the alternative South West Trains route via Staines and Clapham Junction, while passengers for Heathrow can use the Piccadilly line. Secondly, Paddington was able (finally) to open at about 2pm, and from then a relatively normal service could resume.

One difference, though, was that the Paddington disruption was not advertised in advance. It was clear by about midday on Boxing Day that there would be significant disruption to trains in and out of Kings Cross, and the railway companies managed to get that message out fairly well. (Indeed, the fact that they got the message to travel to Finsbury Park out so well may actually have worked against them in making the overcrowding at Finsbury Park so bad!) The Paddington disruption, in contrast, seemed to come completely by surprise and was all the more disruptive for it.

All in all, the whole debacle caused absolute chaos for passengers trying to travel to and from seeing friends and relatives after Christmas. While commuter journeys and business traffic is much reduced between Christmas and New Year, there's a significant boost in leisure traffic. Thanks to the perfect storm of planned and overrunning engineering works, those passengers travelling between Scotland, the north of England and London have been very badly hit today, and I hope that lessons are learned.

I can't help feeling, though, that we've been here before: back in 2007, three sets of Christmas engineering works overran at the same time, at London Liverpool Street, Rugby and Glasgow Central. Ultimately, that was down to there simply not being enough engineers qualified to deal with overhead electric wires to go round - something all three sites required in abundance. I can't help but feel a slight sense of déjà vu: there are at least five separate engineering worksites this Christmas which require modifications to overhead wires, and I hope that history is not repeating itself.

The thing which worries me most is that Kings Cross is by no means the largest piece of engineering work going on this Christmas. The aforementioned works at Watford Junction are due to be completed by the morning of Monday 29th. Moreover, there are huge projects underway at Reading and London Bridge which are due to reopen on Monday 5th January, which will be the first day back to work for the majority of commuters - if either of those projects run late, then the crowds at Finsbury Park will start to look small by comparison.

Ultimately, though, I would like to pay tribute to all the Network Rail engineers who are out there doing their best to complete the improvement works on time; while most of us enjoyed our Christmas dinners, they were out there working hard to keep our railways running, and I wish them the best of luck in getting all this engineering work completed on time.

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