The Northern Nightmare – An Insoluble Puzzle?

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Whatever you read in the media about railways in the north these days – whether it’s North West or North East, we see to have accepted that this was unforeseen, almost as if there was no plan.  Now it seems the timetable problems have created a political North West versus North East skirmish, between councillors in Newcastle and the Regional Director of Northern Rail.

6 months ago we heard very little about timetable problems, cancelled or massively delayed trains, nor did we hear too much about shortages of trained train crews, but at the same time Government was advertising the biggest investment since the 1800s.

Why?

Was it a lack of communication between train operating companies, the owners of the rolling stock, Network Rail’s project management of electrification schemes, and overly long contractor and supplier chains?

Mike Paterson, the regional director for Northern, admitted that some trains had been kept in the north-west to deal with the problems, which were worse in that region.

“Because of delays to the electrification of the Manchester to Preston (via Bolton) line, we had to re-plan those timetables at short notice and keep some diesel trains in the north-west to help deliver services to our customers on those lines affected by the delay,” he said.

Source: North West v. North East (Guardian)

In his statement above, Mr Paterson appears to suggest that the timetable re-plan was done at short notice – so was there no contingency plan to cope with a potential electrification delay?

Passengers in the North East have, like everyone else the right to complain when they are promised new trains in a great ‘modernisation plan’, and then get reconditioned trains instead.  A great many trains across the northern routes are more than 25 or 30 years old, with some – like the ‘Pacers’ – operating services for which they were never intended.  Are the reconditioned trains for the North East a ‘stop gap’ measure?  Still, they are ‘digitised’, as Northern Rail suggest:

“These will feature free wifi, plug sockets, automated customer information screens and new seating – and some will even have full climate control,” said a spokesperson. “Our refurbished trains will feel like new and customers will experience a level of comfort not seen before on Northern services in the region.”

It’ll be interesting to see what happens next.

I don’t believe – I guess like many others – that simply nationalising the services in the north will end the problem quickly.  Removing the franchise from Northern Rail and taking the routes and services into public ownership will still have those problems.  Let’s say there is a new Northwest Rail and Northeast Rail – they will still be hamstrung by the need to manage relationships with rolling stock operators, manufacturers and Network Rail.

The skills of timetable planning, arranging for assets to be in the right place at the right time to move people and goods, alongside upgrades to infrastructure, signalling and telecoms seem to be in short supply?  Or, is it a shortfall of project management skills, a lack of engineering skills and a reliance on short term contracts to do a job.

With so much of the franchised rail industry divided into so many different units, and in a small country like the UK, we have perhaps little hope of integrating land transport systems.  The idea that British Rail in the 1970s and 1980s was worse than this is laughable nowadays.

Ah well, HS2 will be here soon – or will it be cancelled or delayed!

-oOo-

 

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