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

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“A story of incompetence, arrogance, privilege and power”: A brief history of the Garden Bridge

Ewwww. Image: Heatherwick.

Labour assembly member Tom Copley on a an ignominious history.

The publication last week of the final bill for Boris Johnson’s failed Garden Bridge has once again pushed this fiasco into the headlines.

As well as an eye-watering £43m bill for taxpayers for this Johnsonian indulgence, what has been revealed this week is astonishing profligacy by the arms-length vehicle established to deliver it: the Garden Bridge Trust. The line by line account of their spending reveals £161,000 spent on their website and £400,000 on a gala fundraising event, amongst many other eyebrow raising numbers. 

Bear in mind that back in 2012, Johnson promised that the bridge would be entirely privately funded. The bridge’s most ardent advocate, Joanna Lumley, called it a “tiara for the Thames” and “a gift for London”. Today, the project would seem the very opposite of a “gift”.

The London Assembly has been scrutinising this project since its inception, and I now chair a working group tasked with continuing our investigation. We are indebted to the work of local campaigners around Waterloo as well as Will Hurst of the Architects Journal, who has brought many of the scandals surrounding the project into the open, and who was the subject of an extraordinary public attack by Johnson for doing so.

Yet every revelation about this cursed project has thrown up more questions than it has answers, and it’s worth reminding ourselves just how shady and rotten the story of this project has been.

There was Johnson’s £10,000 taxpayer funded trip to San Francisco to drum up sponsorship for the Thomas Heatherwick garden bridge design, despite the fact that TfL had not at that point even tendered for a designer for the project.

The design contest itself was a sham, with one of the two other architects TfL begged to enter in an attempt to create the illusion of due process later saying they felt “used”. Heatherwick Studios was awarded the contract and made a total of £2.7m from taxpayers from the failed project.


Soon after the bridge’s engineering contract had been awarded to Arup, it was announced that TfL’s then managing director of planning, Richard de Cani, was departing TfL for a new job – at Arup. He continued to make key decisions relating to the project while working his notice period, a flagrant conflict of interest that wouldn’t have been allowed in the civil service. Arup received more than £13m of taxpayer cash from the failed project.

The tendering process attracted such concern that the then Transport Commissioner, Peter Hendy, ordered an internal audit of it. The resulting report was a whitewash, and a far more critical earlier draft was leaked to the London Assembly.

As concerns about the project grew, so did the interventions by the bridge’s powerful advocates to keep it on track. Boris Johnson signed a mayoral direction which watered down the conditions the Garden Bridge Trust had to meet in order to gain access to further public money, exposing taxpayers to further risk. When he was hauled in front of the London Assembly to explain this decision, after blustering for while he finally told me that he couldn’t remember.

David Cameron overruled the advice of senior civil servants in order to extend the project’s government credit line. And George Osborne was at one point even more keen on the Garden Bridge than Johnson himself. The then chancellor was criticised by the National Audit Office for bypassing usual channels in order to commit funding to it. Strangely, none of the project’s travails have made it onto the pages of the London Evening Standard, a paper he now edits. Nor did they under his predecessor Sarah Sands, now editor of the Today Programme, another firm advocate for the Garden Bridge.

By 2016 the project appeared to be in real trouble. Yet the Garden Bridge Trust ploughed ahead in the face of mounting risks. In February 2016, despite having not secured the land on the south bank to actually build the bridge on, nor satisfied all their planning consents, the Trust signed an engineering contract. That decision alone has cost the taxpayer £21m.

Minutes of the Trust’s board meetings that I secured from TfL (after much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the Trust itself) reveal that weeks beforehand Thomas Heatherwick had urged the trustees to sign the contract in order to demonstrate “momentum”.

Meanwhile TfL, which was represented at board meetings by Richard de Cani and so should’ve been well aware of the mounting risks to the project, astonishingly failed to act in interests of taxpayers by shutting the project down.

Indeed, TfL allowed further public money to be released for the project despite the Trust not having satisfied at least two of the six conditions that had been set by TfL in order to protect the public purse. The decision to approve funding was personally approved by Transport Commissioner Mike Brown, who has never provided an adequate explanation for his decision.

The story of the Garden Bridge project is one of incompetence, arrogance and recklessness, but also of privilege and power. This was “the great and the good” trying to rig the system to force upon London a plaything for themselves wrapped up as a gift.

The London Assembly is determined to hold those responsible to account, and we will particularly focus on TfL’s role in this mess. However, this is not just a London issue, but a national scandal. There is a growing case for a Parliamentary inquiry into the project, and I would urge the Public Accounts Committee to launch an investigation. 

The Garden Bridge may seem like small beer compared to Brexit. But there is a common thread: Boris Johnson. It should appal and outrage us that this man is still being talked about as a potential future Prime Minister. His most expensive vanity project, now dead in the water, perhaps serves as an unwelcome prophecy for what may be to come should he ever enter Number 10.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.