ORR Inquiry concludes passengers let down by rail industry failures

20 September 2018

The Office of Rail and Road (ORR), chaired by Stephen Glaister, has today published its interim Inquiry report into what caused the May 2018 timetable disruption, which led to passengers enduring delays and cancellations as they could not predict how long a journey may take, or even if it was possible to travel.

The three-month Inquiry has found that Network Rail, Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), Northern, the Department for Transport (DfT), and the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) all made mistakes, which contributed to the collapse of services, particularly on the GTR and Northern routes.

On 20 May this year, the rail industry attempted to introduce the biggest timetable change in a generation. The £1bn plus Great North Rail Project, which includes the North West Electrification Programme (NWEP), and the £7bn Thameslink programme should have added more services to new destinations, introduced new rolling stock, provided more seats for passengers and improved reliability.

The Inquiry found problems caused by delays to completing NWEP were worsened by Network Rail, which wrongly believed it could make up the time. It also found that the DfT’s decision to agree to phase the introduction of Thameslink stretched resources at Network Rail’s timetabling department (System Operator) and that the industry, as a whole, failed to foresee that these combined factors created a serious risk that the revised timetable could fail.

The Inquiry has determined that during the planning stages the industry placed engineering and planning concerns ahead of serving its passengers, and that was made worse by the poor information train operators provided when disruption happened.

A key issue, found by the Inquiry, is that there is an apparent gap in industry responsibility and accountability for managing systemic risks, and that needs to change.

Other key findings are:

  • The System Operator (SO) function within Network Rail  was in the best position to understand and manage the risks, but did not take sufficient action, especially in the critical period of autumn 2017
  • Neither GTR nor Northern were properly aware of or prepared for the problems in delivering the timetable and they did not do enough to provide accurate information to passengers when disruption occurred
  • Both DfT and ORR are responsible for overseeing aspects of the industry, but neither sufficiently questioned assurances they received from the industry about the risk of disruption.

The ORR's report into its role in the timetabling issues is published separately.

The final stage of the Inquiry will analyse what actions the industry, DfT and ORR must take to ensure that a similar breakdown of services cannot happen. Recommendations will be published in the Final Report in December.

ORR and Inquiry Chairman, Professor Stephen Glaister said:

"The May 2018 timetable was meant to offer more services and reliability, but in reality it led to major disruption for passengers. Today’s report uncovers the issues that Network Rail, GTR, Northern, ORR and the DfT together need to address to stop this disruption happening again.

"Central to the issues were that good intentions and over-optimism within the rail industry about its ability to recover missed deadlines left no time to uncover and fix problems. When problems arose, timetable planners were stretched and train operators were ill-equipped to help passengers. This meant that staff worked in very difficult circumstances to do as good a job as possible and I thank them for their efforts."

Notes to editors

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  1. Links to documents: Independent Inquiry into the timetable disruption in May 2018 and Prior role review.
  2. The Inquiry has received responses from a wide range of people and organisations, reviewed over 2,000 documents and interviewed dozens of senior executives in the rail industry.
  3. The ORR launched the Timetable Inquiry on 13 June.
  4. Background on planned changes: GTR was planning to run 3,880 trains a day after the timetable change. In the event around 270 a day did not run at all and weekly delay minutes rose from  a little over 10,000 to over 30,000. Northern failed to run 125 trains of a planned 2,510 services and its delay minutes soared from under 15,000 to close to 50,000.
  5. The Office of Rail and Road (ORR) is the UK’s rail regulator and strategic roads monitor for England. Follow us @railandroad.