Britain introduces major new rail timetable, watches network instantly collapse into chaos – LIVE!

Oooh, a train, that is unusual. Image: Alex Nevin-Tylee/Wikipedia Commons.

Yesterday, the British rail network introduced one of the biggest timetable changes it has ever seen, in order to create paths for the expansion of the Thameslink network. It instantly went horribly, horribly wrong.

Because I love chaos, I am sort of live-blogging it.

1730hrs: Evening rush hour, baby! “Are you still liveblogging?” asks Seb Patrick, suggesting I take a look at the state of play in the north.

He’s not wrong. This is the departures board at Manchester Victoria.

Still, I’m sure the much more complicated process of Brexit, which has many more interlocking parts, is going to be completely and utterly fine.

Anyway, I'm going to sign off here. Have a lovely evening. And remember – don’t have nightmares.

1610hrs: I’ve been writing something that isn’t about trains (housing, obviously) and not a lot has been happening so the liveblog has gone a bit quiet. Two quick things, though:

1) Has anyone spotted an update of the London & South East Rail map? The one on the Network Rail website is still the December 2017 edition which gives no hint that Thameslink is about to start snaking its way into new territories, and I’ve not spotted an update in the real world either.

Not that it’s the biggest concern right now, but it is a bit odd that this new map doesn’t seem to exist. It’s like adding a tube line but not updating the tube map.

2) I had a piece in the I Paper this morning about the politics of railways, and why transport secretary Chris Grayling is likely to spend all week nursing a headache. It’s now online here. Sample text:

On the day in September 1830 that Britain got its first intercity passenger service, a former cabinet minister got himself killed by a train.... In the two centuries since his death, the British railways have killed surprisingly few cabinet ministers, but they have humiliated many.

Evening rush hour soon. Hope it’s as much fun as the morning!

1350hrs: “But,” asked a colleague, once he’d stopped howling with laughter at the fact I’d accidentally publishing some pictures of model trains, “why is the rail network in chaos today?” Good question.

Short version: in the south, at least, it’s because of the Thameslink Programme. Longer version follows.

Back in the 1980s, British Rail realised it could use long abandoned rail routes through central London to link the line into St Pancras to the line into Blackfriars and created a cross-London link. That opened in 1988 as Thameslink, and was such a success that, by 1991, there was already talk of expansion: more frequent trains to more destinations on both sides of the capital.

Doing that, though, required a whole bunch of physical work: a new grade-separated junction outside London Bridge, so that trains wouldn’t have to cross each other’s paths; a new tunnel to connect Thameslink to the lines out of Kings Cross; a new viaduct over Borough Market, to give the line more capacity; plus major rebuilding projects at the central London stations, and platform extensions at several dozen more.


Getting approval for that lot took a while – so what had optimistically begun life as the Thameslink 2000 project didn’t get government funding until 2007, and construction only began in 2009.

Much of this is now done, and yesterday was supposed to see a bunch of new routes added to the Thameslink network. But because these will share track with non-Thameslink trains, the expansion will have a knock on effect on the Great Northern and Southern bits of the rail network. To make this easier, the three areas were bundled into a single rail franchise – Govia Thameslink – In 2014, and the timetabling of all three areas had to be rejigged to accommodate the new routes.

So: the reason the rail network of south east England is having a minor meltdown right now is because this is the first chance there’s been to see if the new timetable will work in practice, and on the evidence so far it doesn’t. It will almost certainly get better, but it’s not much fun today.

That’s the explanation in the south. The story in the north is the same old story of under-investment and screw-ups by just about everybody. (More on that below at 1215hrs.)

1305hrs: It has been brought to my attention that I’ve made my own contribution to today’s rail chaos, by publishing this article by CityMetric regular Chris Sharp, complete with his pictures, without noting – or, indeed, noticing – that all the pictures are of model trains.

Apparently there were some subtle hints of this in the pictures.

In my defence, it was 5.15pm on a Friday and I wanted to go to the pub, but everybody is finding it hilarious.

Anyway, if we could go back to mocking the national rail network rather than me that’d be lovely, thanks.

1215hrs: I’m going to get in trouble if I don’t mention that, entirely separately to Govia Thameslink mess around London, the Northern rail network is suffering chaos of its own today. And not just today, in fact: the Manchester Evening News has been reporting on this particular chaos for some weeks. Some choice quotes:

An M.E.N. search of Northern’s own performance figures reveals just shy of 1,700 Northern Rail cancellations across north and south Manchester in less than three months, between February 4 and April 28.

Existing problems - which the operator says is due to the delay in electrification of the line between Manchester and Preston via Bolton - have been exacerbated in recent weeks by ongoing strikes over the role of guards on trains, which saw action over the Easter holidays and two more walk-outs planned for the next bank holiday weekend.

Even the much-heralded new timetable, to be launched in May, has brought more problems. It has emerged that includes a major ‘scaling-down’ of services between Wigan and Manchester Piccadilly.

The hourly Chester to Leeds service, via Manchester Victoria, is now scheduled to be introduced in December 2018, while both Heaton Chapel and Levenshulme passengers will see a temporary reduction in the frequency services, from four trains an hour to three.

There’s more. There’s much more. I mean, blimey.

All this seems to be the result of a sort of cascade of problems. Northern blames the fact that work to electrify the Blackpool line overran by three weeks. That delayed driver training, which meant driver shortages. That would shove the blame onto Network Rail, the government’s rail infrastructure agency.

But the Department for Transport, which sits above Network Rail and presumably keen to avoid the blame, blames union inflexibility, for preventing their members from adapting to last minute changes. Other commentators point out that, if Northern staff aren’t willing to stick their neck out, it’s because they think they’ve been poorly treated by management. Oh, and there also aren’t enough trains. That’s a factor too. Basically, you can blame a lot of different people for this.

At any rate: Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham has been repeatedly demanding an investigation into Northern’s performance, while many in the north are getting aggravated that the national media’s attention is focused almost entirely on the chaos on the southern rail network while largely ignoring that of the northern one:

So, to sum up, everybody’s happy.

1040hrs: Yesterday afternoon, architect Russell Curtis was having fun with journey planners. Can anyone beat this?

Normally, there are direct trains from New Barnet to Old Street, as part of Great Northern's Moorgate-Welwyn Garden City stopping service. It takes under half an hour.

Yesterday, everything had gone so FUBAR that the algorithms had instead decided to send him via Farringdon and Battersea (journey time: 177 minutes). I genuinely can't even work out what route it wanted him to take.

If you can beat that, then a) I'll be impressed but b) do tell me, I could do with a laugh.


0920hrs: Yesterday, one of the largest single timetable changes the British rail network has ever seen came into effect on the lines to the north and south of London. 

The progress of the decade long Thameslink Programme – once, hilariously, known as Thameslink 2000 – meant that the cross-London network could begin to serve a raft of new destinations, including Cambridge, Peterborough, Horsham and the Medway Towns. 

This in turn would have a knock on effect on services on Great Northern, Southern, and the Gatwick Express – all collectively operated by Britain’s busiest rail franchise, Govia Thameslink, responsible for a whole quarter of British rail journeys – as well as other operators beyond its domain. It all sounded very exciting.

Except, of course, it all went instantly and horribly wrong. Despite a lengthy publicity campaign and weeks of cheery on-board announcements that  times are changing!” (do you see what they did there?), very few of the new services seemed to be running yesterday. 

Which was fine, because it was a Sunday, so the trains were relatively quiet. But it became clear that this was not a problem likely to have been dealt with by Monday morning when this happened:

Good question. But apparently they did not know. The update from industry umbrella body National Rail, posted just before 8pm on the evening before commuters would wake up to their new timetable, warned that four services were now being “gradually phased in”:

  • Peterborough to Horsham via London St Pancras International
  • Luton to Rainham via London Bridge
  • Luton to Orpington via London St Pancras International
  • Bedford to Brighton via London St Pancras International
  • But it didn’t spell out what that gradual phasing in would mean – or, more prosaically, which trains were actually running. If anyone actually knew at all. Which it is entirely possible that they did not.

One way of getting a sense of how the change is going this morning is to look at the departure boards of one of the stations on the Thameslink core route, which runs north-south through central London. 

This is how things stand at City Thameslink at time of writing:

Click to expand.

That’s one train running nine minutes late, another running 18 minutes late, a third running just three minutes late (so, not enough to qualify for a pink warning strip) and three cancellations. Just half of the 12 trains on the board are running without incident.

Some of this stuff was probably inevitable. Commuters grow used to getting particular trains at particular times; they know where on the platform to stand to maximize their chance of a seat, or ensure they are in the right place to exit the station to disembark. Any disruption to this routine will infuriate those who aren’t expecting it, and no timetable change will attain universal awareness before introduction.

Moreover, the changes will produce losers as well as winners: stations which see longer journey times, or reductions in services. And human nature being what it is, while the winners are quietly banking their good fortune, the losers are likely to be on TV or social media shouting about it. To whit:

So: some teething troubles were inevitable. What was perhaps not inevitable was the mass cancellations, and the fact that nobody really seems to know what’s happening.

CityMetric loves two things above all others: major rail investment programmes, and snark. So we’ll be keeping an eye on the news and maybe even updating this post as the day goes on. Do feel free to write in or tweet me.

You see? This is exciting!

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook


 

 
 
 
 

British television once sounded like Britain. But then, the ITV mergers happened

The Granada Studios, Quay Street, Manchester. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

This summer, several ITV franchises celebrated half a century of continuous operation. There was a Yorkshire Television themed cake, and a flag bearing the company’s logo was flown over ITV’s Yorkshire base for a time. It was all very jolly – but while a few people beyond Britain’s small community of television historians and old telly nerds engaged with the idea, any excitement was brief.

The main reason for is not, as you might assume, that, in the era of streaming and so forth, ITV is no longer a dominant presence in many people’s cultural lives: even the quickest of glances at the relevant figures would tell you otherwise. No, it’s because the mere existence of ITV’s franchises is now passing out of common memory. They are the trademarks, literally rather than figuratively, of a version of ITV that today exists only nominally.

For most of its history, ITV operated on a federal model. ITV wasn’t a company, it was a concept: ‘Independent Television’, that is, television which was not the BBC.

It was also a network, rather than a channel – a network of multiple regional channels, each of which served a specific area of the UK. Each had their own name and onscreen identity; and each made programmes within their own region. They were ITV – but they were also Yorkshire, Granada, Grampian, Thames, and so on.

So when I was a child growing up the in Midlands in the ‘80s, no one at school ever said “ITV”: they said “Central”, because that’s what the channel called itself on air, or “Channel Three” because that’s where it was on the dial. To visit friends who lived in other regions was to go abroad – to visit strange lands where the third channel was called Anglia, and its logo was a bafflingly long film sequence of a model knight rotating on a record turntable, where all the newsreaders were different and where they didn’t show old horror films on Friday nights.

The ITV regions as of 1982, plus Ireland. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, there were programmes that were shown across the whole network. Any station, no matter in what part of the country, would be foolish not to transmit Coronation Street during the period where it could persuade nearly half the population to tune in. But even The Street wasn’t networked from the beginning: it started in six of the then eight ITV regions, and rolled out to the other two after a few months when it became clear the series was here to stay.

This was a common occurrence: The Avengers, one of the few ITV series to genuinely break America, began in an even more limited number of regions in the same year, with other areas scrambling to catch up when the programme became a hit.

The idea behind ITV’s structure was that the regions would compete with each other to put programmes on the network, opting in and out of others’ productions as worked best for them. ITV was, after all, an invention of a 1950s Conservative government that was developing a taste for the idea of ‘healthy competition’ even as it accepted the moral and practical case for a mixed economy. The system worked well for decades: in 1971, for example, the success of London Weekend Television’s Upstairs, Downstairs, creatively and commercially, and domestically and internationally, prompted other regions to invest in high end period dramas so as to not look like a poor relation.


Even away from prestige productions there was, inexplicable as it now seems, a genuine sense of local pride when a hit programme came from your region. That Bullseye was made on Broad Street in Birmingham was something that people knew. That 17.6m people watched the 1984 Xmas special, making it one of the ten most watched programmes of the year, made Bully a sort of local hero. In more concrete terms, Bullseye and other Birmingham based programmes provided jobs, and kept that part of the country visible from all others. This was true of all areas, and from all areas.

ITV franchises would often make programmes that were distinctive to, or set in, their region. Another of Central’s late eighties hits was Boon. It might have starred the cockney-sounding Michael Elphick, but it was filmed and set in Birmingham, just as Central’s predecessor ATV’s Public Eye had been at the end of the sixties. In Tales of the Unexpected, one of the poorest and smallest ITV regions, the aforementioned Anglia, made a bona fide international hit, largely filmed in transmission area, too. HTV produced a string of children’s series set in its south west catchment area, including some, such as The Georgian House, that examined the way the area had profited from the slave trade.

There was another element of ‘competition’ in the structure of ITV as originally conceived: the franchises were not for life. Every few years, a franchise round would come along, forcing the incumbent stations to bid to continue its own existence against other local offerings.

The process was no simple auction. Ministers were empowered to reject higher financial bids if they felt a lower bid offered other things that mattered: local employment or investment, programming plans that reflected the identity of the region they were bidding to serve, or simply higher quality programmes.

Yorkshire Television itself owes its existence to just such a franchise round: the one that followed a 1967 decision by regulator IBA that Granada, until then the holder of a pan-northern England licence, was insufficiently local to Yorkshire. For a decade, commissioning and production had been concentrated in Manchester, with little representation of, or benefit for, the other side of the Pennines. IBA’s decision was intended to correct this.

Yorkshire existed in practical terms for almost exactly 40 years. Its achievements included Rising Damp, the only truly great sitcom ever made for ITV.

But in 1997 it was, ironically, bought out by Granada, the company who had had to move aside in order for it to be created. What had changed? The law.

In 1990, another Conservative government, one even keener on competition and rather less convinced of the moral and practical case for a mixed economy, had changed the rules concerning ITV regions. There was still a ‘quality threshold’ of a sort – but there was less discretion for those awarding the franchises. Crucially, the rules had been liberalised, and the various ITV franchises that existed as of 1992 started buying out, merging with and swallowing one another until, in 2004, the last two merged to form ITV plc: a single company and a single channel.

The Yorkshire Television birthday cake. Image: ITV.

Yorkshire Television – or rather ITV Yorkshire as it was renamed in 2006 – is listed at Companies House as a dormant company, although it is still the nominal holder of the ITV licence for much of Northern England. Its distinctive onscreen identity, including the logo, visible on the cake above, disappeared early this century, replaced by generic ITV branding, sometimes with the word Yorkshire hidden underneath it, but often without it. Having once been created because Manchester was too far away, Yorkshire TV is now largely indistinguishable from that offered in London. (It is more by accident of history than anything else that ITV retains any non-London focus at all; one of the last two regions standing was Granada.)

The onscreen identities of the all the other franchises disappeared at roughly the same time. What remained of local production and commissioning followed. Regional variations now only really exist for news and advertising. TV is proud that is can offer advertisers a variety of levels of engagement, from micro regional to national: it just doesn’t bother doing so with programming or workforce any more.

Except for viewers in Scotland. Curiously, STV is an ITV franchise which, for reasons too complicated to go into here, doesn’t suffer from the restrictions/opportunities imposed by upon its English brethren in 1990. It also – like UTV in Northern Ireland, another complex, special case – Its own onscreen identity. Nationalism, as it so often does, is trumping regionalism – although it was not all that long ago that Scotland had multiple ITV regions, in recognising its own lack homogeneity and distinct regions, while respecting its status as a country.


As is often observed by anyone who has thought about it for more than four seconds, the UK is an almost hilariously over-centralised country, with its political, financial, administrative, artistic and political centres all in the same place. Regionalised television helped form a bulwark against the consequences of that centralisation. Regional commissioning and production guaranteed that the UK of ITV looked and sounded like the whole of the UK. The regions could talk about themselves, to themselves and others, via the medium of national television.

The idea of a federal UK crops up with increasing frequency these days; it is almost inconceivable that considerable constitutional tinkering will not be required after the good ship UK hits the iceberg that is Brexit, and that’s assuming that Northern Ireland and Scotland remain within that country at all. If the UK is to become a federation, and many think it will have to, then why shouldn’t its most popular and influential medium?

A new Broadcasting Act is needed. One that breaks up ITV plc and offers its constituent licences out to tender again; one that offers them only on the guarantee that certain conditions, to do with regional employment and production, regional commissioning and investment, are met.

Our current national conversation is undeniably toxic. Maybe increasing the variety of accents in that conversation will help.

Thanks to Dr David Rolinson at the University of Stirling and britishtelevisiondrama.org.uk.