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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The Fire Brigades Union’s statement on Theresa May’s resignation is completely damning

Grenfell Tower. Image: Getty.

Just after 10 this morning, Theresa May announced that she would resign as Britain’s prime minister on 7 June. A mere half an hour later, a statement from Royal Institute of British Architects president Ben Derbyshire arrived in my inbox with a ping:

“The news that Theresa May will step down as Prime Minister leaves the country in limbo while the clock ticks down to the latest deadline of 31 October. While much is uncertain, one thing remains clear – a no deal is no option for architecture or the wider construction sector. Whoever becomes the next Prime Minister must focus on taking the country forward with policies beyond Brexit that tackle the major challenges facing the country such as the housing crisis and climate change emergency.”

I was a bit baffled by this – why would the architecture profession try to get its thoughts into a political story? But then Merlin Fulcher of Architects Journal put me right:

Well you know construction is a larger contributor to GDP than financial services, and most of the work UK architects do is for export, and at least half of the largest practice (Foster + Partners) are EU, so there's a lot at stake

— Merlin Fulcher (@merlinfulcher) May 24, 2019

So, the thoughts of the RIBA president are an entirely legitimate thing to send to any construction sector-adjacent journalists who might be writing about today’s big news, and frankly I felt a little silly.

Someone else who should be feeling more than a little silly, though, is Theresa May herself. When listing her government’s achievements, such as they were, she included, setting up “the independent public inquiry into the tragedy at Grenfell Tower” – a fire in a West London public housing block in June 2017 – “to search for the truth, so nothing like it can ever happen again, and so the people who lost their lives that night are never forgotten”.

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, is having precisely none of this. Here’s his statement:

“Many of the underlying issues at Grenfell were due to unsafe conditions that had been allowed to fester under Tory governments and a council for which Theresa May bears ultimate responsibility. The inquiry she launched has kicked scrutiny of corporate and government interests into the long-grass, denying families and survivors justice, while allowing business as usual to continue for the wealthy. For the outgoing Prime Minister to suggest that her awful response to Grenfell is a proud part of her legacy is, frankly, disgraceful.”

A total of 72 people died in the Grenfell fire. At time of writing, nobody has been prosecuted.

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

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