Don’t Mention the R word

A holiday in Durham would be nice. Let’s go by train, so much more relaxing, was the suggestion. Now let me tell you a story.

Tuesday

The 1435 departure from Kings Cross on 6th September was as wholly unremarkable as any stress-free train journey should be. I had ascertained the train (1N21, an electric set) would have plenty of space. Suitable seats were found and a timely departure was followed by an entirely relaxing and uneventful journey as we sped through the English countryside. We arrived at Peterborough dead on time at 1515 or thereabouts.

At this point matters started to unravel. The guard came on and said that there might be a delay owing to overhead line trouble at Retford, a name now engraved on my memory. During the next hour we heard from the guard just four times, so far as I recall. Each time the facts were similarly brief but the tone became increasingly more serious and suggested that this was not going to be resolved quickly. There was no suggestion we should alight so we all sat there.

Round about 1600 a woman wearing a lanyard, but who didn’t seem to be train staff, came around handing everyone seat reservation labels and drawing attention to the delay-repay scheme information on the back. This is ATOC’s latest initiative (reacting to pressure) to suggest railways are caring (and quite right too) but actually at that particular moment what we wanted was information. I harbour no particular grudge against Peterborough but I was a long way from home and wanted to be in Durham and I and a large number of other people who had placed their faith in Virgin East Coast to shift them across the country were waiting for somebody to do something about moving them and the discussion about refunds was frankly for another day.

Getting a tad bored after an hour (when we should have been approaching York) we alighted to take stock, time about 1610. Nobody had asked us to get out, or suggested taking any action at all. The enquiry booth on the platform was busy, and the train staff were hovering at doors answering questions. A discussion with one of them made it quite clear that they had no further information to give other than the line being blocked, but it was ‘hoped’ a following HST train to Aberdeen would turn up soon and divert via Swinderby round the obstruction (I had no idea where Swinderby was, but it sounded like a plan). That train (1S24, 1600 ex Kings Cross) was due at 16.46 but because it was caught up in the queuing did not actually turn up until 1728. This was an HST (diesel) and at that stage only diesels could be diverted.

By now, of course, further northbound trains had arrived and weren’t going anywhere either. By 1620 the station was full of trains and people (neither going anywhere) and trains were backing up down the line, in some cases for over an hour and a half. Those passengers were literally trapped.

The Aberdeen train just referred to had left Kings Cross reasonably well loaded and, since it was now the only train on offer, when it eventually pulled in people from about five Virgin East Coast trains attempted to pour on and it was so full that even Corbyn wouldn’t have found a space to crouch down in. Moreover we had heavy luggage. For a long trip to Durham this simply wasn’t on. After more than two hours at Peterborough one’s spirits were beginning to flag.

What would have been useful in the absence of more initiative from the staff would have been a handy UK rail system map. I found something not very good on the inter-web and started to investigate further options. One problem was the train indicator. National Rail insist on showing trains in timetable order however late they are running so it was very difficult to pick out the ordering of forthcoming live trains from the great mass of ‘cancelled’ or ‘delayed’ trains showing. I suddenly noticed a Liverpool train was due and had just enough time to work out it went via Sheffield. Damn the consequences, you can get to York from Sheffield, I thought, and no electricity involved. Just caught it, found seats and had a very uncomfortable journey as there didn’t seem to be anywhere to put luggage and it wouldn’t go on the rack. Why do railways despise luggage quite so much (no answer expected)?

Amazingly this train more or less connected at Chesterfield with a Cross Country to Newcastle that happened to call at Durham. Peterborough to Durham via Chesterfield is a very long way indeed on these rather slow trains. A 1724 departure from Peterborough of 1R54 arrived Chesterfield at 1921 and connecting train (1E60) departed 1928, arriving Durham 2134 (my expected arrival time from London had been 1725). Fortunately both trains had trolleys and the second one had a pleasant red wine on board by which means I could partly console myself for the loss of four hours of my time.

Well, that could so easily have been the end of the story and had that been the end I would have sighed and kept it to myself. But it wasn’t, was it?

Friday

Returning on Friday 9th we arrived At Durham station in good time for 1Y32, the 1225 from Newcastle, again selected because it would (and did) have plenty of space. We arrived at York more or less on time at 1327, though in an unusual platform.

Now you can’t make this stuff up. No sooner than the train had stopped than the guard came on and indicated there would be a delay owing to some difficulty ahead at Retford. OK no cause for panic but the next thing that happened was an intermittent recorded message for the train crew indicating a passenger alarm had been operated (though there seemed to be no response to this, the crew I could see carrying on doing what they were doing). I mention this only because there was then a long message from the guard who was trying to talk over the alarm message so it wasn’t all terribly clear, but I did hear the words ‘wires down’. There was no suggestion about what we should do about it but I had already ascertained that in a few minutes there was a Manchester Airport train due out and decided not to hang around this time. Two seasoned first class and a handful of standards had a similar idea but everyone else stayed put awaiting instructions (this train was eventually terminated at York so they’d missed an opportunity).

My new train was a Transpennine Express, an operator we hadn’t thus far tested. It was a comfortable diesel unit (1P41) that did the journey to Manchester Piccadilly in about 1½ hours with a minimum number of stops. It could perfectly well have taken more people off the East Coast train. At Piccadilly we all trooped across to platform 6 and caught a very lightly loaded Virgin West Coast train to Euston, 1A48, which departed at 1535 and pulled into Euston at 1735, 5 early. This was more comfortable than East Coast, in my opinion, and the trains don’t bring the wires down, apparently.

Reviewing the decision, it was I think correct. The poor sods left of my ex-Newcastle train were evidently turned out at York and must have been put onto 1E14, the 1200 ex Edinburgh, an electric set. This arrived at York at 1454 (23 late) and finally reached Kings Cross at 1747, some 66 minutes late (and after I’d got to Euston via Manchester). What is more, it must have been heaving, another Corbyn special. There were certainly no London departures between 1306 (when an ex Aberdeen train departed but got held up and diverted as it arrived in London 2hrs late) and the 1454, a gap of just under two hours.

Trains the other way were worse hit. The incident train appears to have been 1S15, an Edinburgh electric set which arrived Doncaster at nearly four hours late at 1702 and was withdrawn from service apparently because of damage to power collection equipment (I think ‘pantograph’ is meant). I feel for the poor people on that train. The first through northbound train was 1S16, an Inverness HST, which was also four hours late as it was stuck behind the incident train. That would have been quite full at Doncaster.

It is apparent that in this case the wires might not have been ‘down’ (as on Tuesday) but something was clearly amiss and damaged the pantograph. Not quite so serious but still pretty serious as  you don’t want more trains damaged (and several trains were damaged and had already caused cancellations).

Thursday (which I thought I’d investigate when after I’d got back on Friday)

Now then, would you be surprised to hear that I then checked the state of the train service on Thursday? I suspect not. Guess what. At about 0915 train 1S07, an Edinburgh electric set, came to grief at Retford where it was delayed 2 hours with consequential delays and cancellations in both directions. Cause – damage caused by overhead line problems (another pantograph jobby by the sound of it). Services chaotic for rest of day.

Sunday

On Sunday, while I was contemplating whether I could be bothered to write all this down, I checked in again. With much diminished astonishment I found apologies for a major breakdown that morning, at Retford. For a start, engineering work had overrun so a number of southbound services were just cancelled; not difficult to work out what was being engineered though. Intriguingly the first southbound diesel, an HST became 67 minutes late south of Doncaster and must have been diverted away from Retford. The next train, also a diesel (Hull trains 1A92 due to call at Retford 1014) lost 35 minutes in Retford area, which can’t be a coincidence and must be connected with the engineering.

The excitement seems to have started with the first northbound train via Retford, 1S09, the 0900 Kings Cross to Edinburgh and an electric set. This left Newark 1 minute early and departed Retford 2 hours 4 minutes late, though remaining in service (perhaps another loco was found). Inevitably this caused much serious late running and cancellations for some hours. It appears this was another ‘train failure’ associated with power pick up and it isn’t clear if overhead line was damaged (though it must have been unwell anyway).

I do not know whether there were actual ‘failures’ on Wednesday but there was extensive late running (30-60 mins typical) in Retford area caused by something happening, presumably heavy speed restrictions and staff doing things on site. Saturday was better but still disruptive restrictions. As I write this at 2000 on Sunday services have more or less recovered.

The Problem

The long and short of all this is that an incident at midday on Tuesday 6th was still very much manifesting itself at midday on Sunday 5 days later. The exact location is actually about 5 miles north of Retford; according to the ever-vigilent Retford Times it is between Ranskill and Scrooby, at around milepost 145.

The Tuesday problem had been caused by train 1D16, 1335 Kings Cross to Leeds, which passed Retford at 1500 but got no further than Ranskill where somehow it tore down the overhead line immediately blocking both tracks. The photos below shows the broken wires. The train was recovered at about 1845 and carried on to Leeds, apparently in service and presumably now diesel-hauled as it must have been damaged. Fortunately it was possible to halt the train 10 minutes behind (a Hull Trains set) at Newark and get people off and then let the following Aberdeen train into the platform, but a few trains were stuck outside stations.

retford01

Image of wire damage (looking south) distributed by Virgin East Coast. The wires above train look correct but we must remember the train took at least half a mile to stop so the wires wrapped around the carriage are from much farther back.

retford02

A close up showing some of the wires shredded. The forces resulting from a 500 tonne train at over 100 mph are tremendous. Photo credited Jez Cope.

It seems from reports from site that the Friday incident took place while work was still in hand on the (dead) overhead lines with trains coasting through, the incident train somehow engaging with the overhead wire still being worked on. For an electric train the method requires all signals in the dead section to be green and the entry speed to be high enough for the train to get through the whole section without the risk of stopping. Obviously the pantograph should be down as there will be gaps or misalignments in the overhead line being worked on, but one unconfirmed report suggests a pantograph was up, thereby becoming seriously damaged. Another report suggests something was hanging down and struck the train. We will no doubt get the truth at some point. By the way, as part of the method of keeping trains moving some electric sets were dragged through using diesel locomotives, adding delay but better than cancelling.

Reflections and the Wider Issues

In any event, that issues like this could last so long and affect tens of thousands of people (including those on overcrowded diversionary routes) would seem to call for a very public explanation given jointly by Network Rail and Virgin East Coast. We just want the facts in sufficient detail to comprehend what was happening and why it went on for so long, together with a joint statement explaining what is being done to mitigate the chances of this happening again. This is not unreasonable in the circumstances

I won’t comment on the length of time taken to fix this as there are plenty of people asking that, but the fragility of the ECML overhead wires is well known and we can’t keep having this type of thing happening and it needs a long term fix. It isn’t just Virgin’s reputation at stake here, it does no favours to the wider industry.

What went well?

First, the staff on the alternative routes were superb (I tested East Midland, Cross Country and Transpennine). What I did notice was that they were not always fully up to date about goings on on East Coast but were content to accept passenger’s explanation about using services along what was clearly not a ‘permitted route’. I wondered if there might be a better way of keeping ‘diversionary’ railway staff better informed.

Second, the East Coast staff remained professional and cheerful and sought to give advice when asked.

Third, I got to and from Durham, eventually.

Fourth, I travelled on several bits of railway I’d never used before and enjoyed by first trip through the lengthy Standedge tunnel, which I hadn’t expected to be doing.

What went less well?

The thing that struck me most forcefully was how long it took to work out at Peterborough on the Tuesday that the train was going nowhere; this took over an hour and it was only shortly before I escaped that it was made clear that the train was ‘terminating’, though people didn’t rush to get off because they had seats and there was no clear alternative.

Now, I realize that train drivers are not qualified engineers. Even so, the driver of the failed train witnessed the bang and saw the wires wrapped round the carriages and should have been able to impart to control very quickly that this was a major incident and that nothing was going to move for hours rather than minutes. I would be astonished if the relevant ‘controls’ were unaware by 1530 that the line was going to be blocked for a very long time and that leaving people at stations sitting in trains that were going nowhere was not an option. Yet at Peterborough it was another hour before this awful truth dawned, and nobody was actually saying ‘no more trains today’ even though passengers were piecing this together from their smartphones, and sometimes knew more than the staff. As far as I can see the first intimation that the line was blocked for the rest of the day was a ‘tweet’ at 1702 at which point I am fairly certain the staff on the station had not had such a message (if they had they were not saying so and there was still no PA announcement). Whilst the staff were doing their best they were not getting basic information themselves and were trying to second guess the constantly changing train indicators. There was nobody in charge. This was very poor and added unnecessary delay to passengers who could have taken other options sooner. If my surmize that ‘control’ staff must have had a fair idea the line was blocked for many hours at 1530 then for it to take 1½ hours to get this message to passengers seems exceedingly poor. Had I known, I could even have gone back to London and via Euston still got to Durham earlier than I did!

The electronic information put out was pitiful, especially on the Virgin and National rail websites. The blanket message soon after it happened was that passengers would be subject to delays of up to an hour, which gradually crept up to two hours. Where did these numbers come from? They were always rubbish and bore no relation to anything. This was misleading and poor. When I first saw delays ‘up to an hour’ after sitting still for 45 mins I thought ‘oh good’, only 15 minutes to go. I think this whole process needs rethinking. It isn’t as though these major problems are unknown to East Coast. What on earth does its contingency plan look like?

I wondered if it was right to leave at least two trainloads of people sitting on a train occupying a platform for well over an hour when there were trains stranded outside the station. Peterborough station is a horrid place at the best of times but if the people on the berthed trains had been rerouted with greater vigour they could have been run out of the way to let the poor folk on the following trains have access to some wider choices.

It took hours to get replacement buses put on, but they were really only any good for local journeys.

The Wider View

Now then. There will be some of you who think maybe my opinions are unduly picky. Well I agree I am not one for the widespread self-congratulatory movement of the ‘aren’t we doing well’ type, though I know morale-building is important for the staff and railways in any case rarely get credit for successes. Nevertheless, the UK railway is making promises about its abilities, taking significant money off people and setting expectations that affect people’s lives and it is doing so under increasingly trying circumstances. It must therefore get even better and more reliable and deal ever more professionally with occasional failures so each catastrophe (as the Retford wires incident shows) must be converted into a major learning experience: only facing up to the shortcomings will achieve this. Have a look at the following chart which relates to Virgin East Coast performance, third item up. It isn’t just me!

delays

These bar charts represent the responses for Virgin East Coast in the Spring 2016 National Passenger Satisfaction survey. The score dropped quickly after Virgin took over in 2015 and seems to remain at that level.

By the way, the Spring 2016 Passenger Satisfaction Survey reports on page 7 that ‘the biggest decline in satisfaction was with how well the train company dealt with delays (-5 per cent) with 54 per cent satisfied.’ (this is across all TOCs but the worst performing were the inter-city ones and out of the inter-city TOCs it appears East Coast declined most in the last wave). It is accepted that this particular measure is influenced by the nature of the TOC being measured and good fortune in the incidents that have occurred but, for heavens sake, this is the 21st century and this measure should be improving. I therefore report what I saw with my own eyes in the hope it may be helpful.

retford05

Another graphic from the Spring 2016 NPS Survey illustrating the key satisfaction drivers. By far the largest driver of satisfaction is punctuality and reliability and by far largest driver of dissatisfaction is how train companies deal with delays, accounting for more than half in the scoring system. I think the charts, together, are evidence that in the most important areas the train operators score least well. This must change.

Obviously the best way to avoid unhappy and disorientated passengers is to eliminate failures in the first place, but if that is impossible (or very difficult, or very expensive) then we have to mitigate the impact on passengers when they occur. I am sure there are furious arguments even now about improving the reliability of ECML wiring. Actually trains, and the infrastructure trains run on, need to be even more reliable to handle the capacity problems the network faces.

When things do go wrong staff on site must benefit from thorough training and the existence of an effective contingency plan but most of all be empowered to do whatever has to be done locally to mitigate the effect on passengers (bearing in mind each person’s needs differs). An unfortunate by-product of making things more reliable is that staff get less experience in handling ‘failures’, including the passenger-facing elements, and that what training the staff do get can be forgotten or out of date. This needs constant attention. What staff need more than anything else, though, is fast and effective communication from above about likely duration of delay and what alternatives are viable (and when). As it was, my feeling was that the local station and staff were getting very little support, there was no plan and there didn’t seem to be anyone in charge. My own railway experience is with Metro-type operation where things would necessarily have been rather different, so perhaps my impressions are not correct.

Nobody said running a railway was easy… That’s why it is so much fun.

POSTSCRIPT. There was another wires down incident near Retford, this time on the up line, which seriously affected services on 19 September, extending into 20 September. I don’t understand why all this is just accepted without comment.

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About machorne

I have always lived in London and taken a great interest in its history and ongoing development. This extended into the history of its transport services, about which I have written a number of books - I have spent most of my working life working in the industry and observing changes from within, mostly to the good, but not always so. I continue to write, and have a website with half finished stuff in it so that it is at least available, if not complete. Several new books are in hand. I have many 'works in progress' and some of these can be found on my website; the we address is http://www.metadyne.co.uk
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